Julian's Science Experiments
  • Famous Experiments and Inventions
  • The Scientific Method
  • Home Astronomy Experiments Astronomy Projects Solar System Quiz Astronomy Jokes Warning!

    Why is the Sky Blue?
    K-12 Experiments & Background Information
    For Science Labs, Lesson Plans, Class Activities & Science Fair Projects
    For Primary, Elementary, Middle and High School Students and Teachers




    The sky is blue for the same reason that everything that is blue looks blue, like blue ink or a blue shirt. You may think that air, the main sky / atmosphere component, is transparent but thick layers of air - a few kilometers or miles, like the atmosphere's width, are bluish due to small dust perticles. So the sunlight that passes the atmosphere air reaches your eyes blue like a beam of bright like passing some blue glass or filter.

    But why are sunsets and sunrises red? Because at sunset times the atmosphere air is red? To understand this you may need some more advanced explanation described in the following chapter.

    Diffuse Sky Radiation

    Diffuse sky radiation is solar radiation reaching the earth's surface after having been scattered from the direct solar beam by molecules or suspensoids in the atmosphere. Also called skylight, diffuse skylight, or sky radiation. Of the total light removed from the direct solar beam by scattering in the atmosphere (approximately 25 percent of the incident radiation), about two-thirds ultimately reaches the earth as diffuse sky radiation.

    Scattering is the process by which small particles suspended in a medium of a different index of refraction redirect a portion of the incident radiation in all directions. In elastic scattering, no energy transformation results, only a change in the spatial distribution of the radiation. The science of optics usually uses the term to refer to the deflection of photons that occurs when they are absorbed and re-emitted by atoms or molecules.

    Why is the sky blue?

    The sky is blue partly because air scatters short-wavelength light in preference to longer wavelengths. Combined, these effects scatter (bend away in all directions) some short, blue light waves while allowing almost all longer, red light waves to pass straight through. When we look toward a part of the sky not near the sun, the blue color we see is blue light waves scattered down toward us from the white sunlight passing through the air overhead. Near sunrise and sunset, most of the light we see comes in nearly tangent to the Earth's surface, so that the light's path through the atmosphere is so long that much of the blue and even yellow light is scattered out, leaving the sun rays and the clouds it illuminates red.

    Scattering and absorption are major causes of the attenuation of radiation by the atmosphere. Scattering varies as a function of the ratio of the particle diameter to the wavelength of the radiation. When this ratio is less than about one-tenth, Rayleigh scattering occurs in which the scattering coefficient varies inversely as the fourth power of the wavelength. At larger values of the ratio of particle diameter to wavelength, the scattering varies in a complex fashion described, for spherical particles, by the Mie theory; at a ratio of the order of 10, the laws of geometric optics begin to apply.

    Why is the sky blue instead of violet?

    Because of the strong wavelength dependence (inverse fourth power) of light scattering according to Raleigh's Law, one would expect that the sky would appear more violet than blue, the former having a shorter wavelength than the latter. There is a simple physiological explanation for this apparent conundrum. Simply put, the human eye cannot detect violet light in presence of light with longer wavelengths. There is a reason for this. It turns out that the human eye's high resolution color-detection system is made of proteins and chromophores (which together make up photoreceptor cells or "Cone" structures in the eye's fovea) that are sensitive to different wavelengths in the visible spectrum (400 nm–700 nm). In fact, there are three major protein-chromophore sensors that have peak sensitivities to yellowish-green (564 nm), bluish-green (534 nm), and blue-violet (420 nm) light. The brain uses the different responses of these chromophores to interpret the spectrum of the light that reaches the retina.

    When one experimentally plots the sensitivity curves for the three color sensors (identified here as long (L), middle (M), and short (S) wavelength), three roughly "bell-curve" distributions are seen to overlap one another and cover the visible spectrum. We depend on this overlap for color sensing to detect the entire spectrum of visible light. For example, monochromatic violet light at 400 nm mostly stimulates the S receptors, but also slightly stimulates the L and M receptors, with the L receptor having the stronger response. This combination of stimuli is interpreted by the brain as violet. Monochromatic blue light, on the other hand, stimulates the M receptor more than the L receptor. Skylight is not monochromatic; it contains a mixture of light covering much of the spectrum. The combination of strong violet light with weaker blue and even weaker green and yellow strongly stimulates the S receptor, and stimulates the M receptor more than the L receptor. As a result, this mixture of wavelengths is perceived by the brain as blue rather than violet.

    Neutral points

    There are three commonly detectable points of zero polarization of diffuse sky radiation (known as neutral points) lying along the vertical circle through the sun.

    • The Arago point, named for its discoverer, is customarily located at about 20° above the antisolar point; but it lies at higher altitudes in turbid air. The latter property makes the Arago distance a useful measure of atmospheric turbidity.
    • The Babinet point, discovered by Babinet in 1840, typically lies only 15° to 20° above the sun, and hence is difficult to observe because of solar glare.
    • The Brewster point, discovered by Brewster in 1840, is located about 15° to 20° directly below the sun; hence it is difficult to observe because of the glare of the sun.

    Under an overcast sky

    There is essentially zero direct sunlight under an overcast sky, so all light is then diffuse sky radiation. The flux of light is not very wavelength dependent because the cloud droplets are larger than the light's wavelength and scatter all colors approximately equally. The light passes through the translucent clouds in a manner similar to frosted glass. The intensity ranges (roughly) from 1/6 of direct sunlight for relatively thin clouds down to 1/1000 of direct sunlight under the extreme of thickest storm clouds.

    Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)

    Useful Links
    Science Fair Projects Resources
    Astronomy Science Fair Books


    My Dog Kelly

    Follow Us On:

    Privacy Policy - Site Map - About Us - Letters to the Editor

    Comments and inquiries could be addressed to:

    Last updated: June 2013
    Copyright © 2003-2013 Julian Rubin