St. Patrick's Day and Double Rainbows

March 9, 2017
Double Rainbow in Iowa

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It’s time to celebrate being Irish (or pseudo-Irish) and look for that pot of gold waiting for you at the end of the rainbow.

I can’t help you with the Irish gig, but I can discuss rainbows. I can also pass on a Central European secret for how to get to the pot of gold.

This is the season to start seeing rainbows, whether you are in Ireland or Texas. The heated air from the South is expanding north and mixing with the cold air remaining from winter—producing spring storms. The combination of raindrops and sunlight produces the magic of rainbows.
six rainbows

Mix water droplets, sunlight, and you get a rainbow—or, in this case six rainbows. SOURCEThe Astrophysics Science Division of NASA/GFSC Credit Terje O. Nordvik

How Are Rainbows Formed?

As the sunlight pours into the rain, each drop acts as a prism, refracting the light. The white sunlight is broken down into its component colors. The back of the raindrop reflects this series of colors, each at a different angle. You see different colors from different raindrops and it blends into a bow.

Each raindrop acts as a prism Source − Wikipedia.

How Are Double Rainbows Made?

For double rainbows, light entering raindrops refract twice, going in from the air to the water and reflecting back out of the water into the air. Each refraction produces a rainbow. You can frequently see the bright first rainbow with a fainter reverse rainbow on the outside.

Once you know the basic science, you can start to understand why there are so many different crazy rainbows. The more the light bounces around, reflecting and refracting, the more different rainbows you can get. 

There are even multiple rainbows. Rain, mist, reflections and light bouncing through the water droplets creates many different rainbows. One scientist, with a laser, created 200 at once.

Ever heard of monochrome rainbows? Sometimes, at sunrise or sunset, when the blues and greens have faded from the sky, you get a brilliant all-red rainbow.

An un-enhanced photo of a red (monochrome) rainbow. Source − Wikipedia.

Whether there are one or fifty rainbows, they are all beautiful images that retreat as you approach them. The end of the rainbow with its pot of gold always remains tantalizingly out of reach.

But, here’s some hope for St. Patrick’s day. A number of European countries have rainbow folklore, spinning tales of elusive gold. In Silesia, (part of Central Europe) legend says that angels put a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and only a naked man can reach it.

So fortify yourself with green beer, warn the neighbors, and go for the gold!


About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to “Weather Whispers” by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these articles. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.


Reader Comments

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While flying back home from

While flying back home from Florida my brother and I saw on the clouds the shadow of our plane with a double, full circle rainbow around it. I managed to capture it with my camera, though it's a bit difficult to see.

How great you were able to

How great you were able to capture the picture!

Several days after my

Several days after my mother's funeral, my sisters and I saw a quadruple rainbow in the sky and all of us felt it was a sign from her that she was in Heaven and was letting us know. It kept fading in and out for several minutes. Beautiful!

Seeing a rainbow always feels

Seeing a rainbow always feels like a blessing! I'm glad the rainbow could give you and your sisters peace.

I was always intrigued by

I was always intrigued by rainbows. When I was a kid I hoped I could one day get to one, and walk on it. Then I read the Wizard of Oz which only fed my fantasies further. Thanks for the great article, it has enlightened me in many aspects that I wasn;t aware of, and it brought me back to some very nice childhood memories.

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I think you meant Irish Jig,

I think you meant Irish Jig, not gig : ) Double rainbows are my favor.ite

Actually I meant gig as in a

Actually I meant gig as in a job/performance. It is a term used by actors and musicians. I actually could show you how to do a jig. My version may not be pretty, but it is enthusiastic.

On 3/12/12 my neighbors and I

On 3/12/12 my neighbors and I witnessed a rainbow's end in my field in front of the woods.

The most stunning double

The most stunning double rainbow I ever saw was in Ireland (August 2000) about 20 miles north of Dublin.

Just last week, stuck in the

Just last week, stuck in the rain after school, I got a compensatory treat: a well defined rainbow arcing across almost 150 degrees of sky, and two sections of the double rainbow to the west and east. Against a cloudy sky, beautiful.

Years ago, I was fixing fence

Years ago, I was fixing fence in a dry lake that laid below the horizon by quite a bit. A rain shower came through and in the East was three double-rainbows. The pickup with the camera was a half mile away and I didn't want to run back and retrieve it and take a picture. Have regretted not doing so. Nobody has believed me, so I am satisfied to read proof that it could happen. I expected to hear the heavenly choir begin singing when the rainbows appeared!!

Great blog. I've never seen

Great blog. I've never seen more than 2 rainbows. Next time, I'll look harder to see if there are more! If I ran to the end of the rainbow, would I ever get there?

If you look at the internet,

If you look at the internet, some people claim they got there. They were in a bright misty area with so much refraction that it shimmered with color. Technically, they were not really at the end of the rainbow, but it was beautiful.

Where ever they were when

Where ever they were when they had that experience, that is where I would like to visit! I would really like to get inside a rainbow and see these refractions shimmering with color! "Somewhere, over the rainbow!"


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