August 11, 2009

The Elusive Beauty of Lunar Rainbows

Moonbow, Yosemite Lower Falls,

When the moon is near its fullest, with barely a cloud veiling its face, certain locations on earth treat observers to the scarcely seen light phenomenon known as the lunar rainbow, or moonbow. Like daytime-occurring rainbows, moonbows are formed when rays of light bounce off water droplets suspended in the air – the vapour of a raincloud, say, or the spray from a thundering waterfall – thWhen the moon is near its fullest, with barely a cloud veiling its face, certain locations on earth treat observers to the scarcely seen light phenomenon known as the lunar rainbow, or moonbow. Like daytime-occurring rainbows, moonbows are formed when rays of light bounce off water droplets suspended in the air – the vapour of a raincloud, say, or the spray from a thundering waterfall – though of course they are caused by the light not of the sun but of the moon.

Driving through a night time archway: Moonbow on Fraser Island, Australia


Like their diurnal counterparts, moonbows always appear in the part of the sky opposite the celestial body that provides their light source, with the moon thus positioned behind the viewer. Except for those lunar bows whose medium is the mist of waterfalls, a rare combination of a low moon and a dark sky are needed to create this spectacular sight – not to mention rainfall up ahead.

Gold at the end of the moonbow: Captured over the Pacific Ocean in Tahiti


Even with the moon at its brightest, moonbows are faint compared to typical rainbows due to the low quantity of light shone down by our only satellite. The glow is too weak to stimulate the colour receptors of the naked eye – meaning moonbows are often seen as being white – so it’s lucky long-exposure photography has stepped in, enabling us to see all the colours of the moonbow.

Misty moonbow: Dark and drizzly but notice the glowing grass in the foreground


Photographers have written reams about how best to capture this singular phenomenon. Tips include the use of a tripod, switching to manual focus, and bracketing exposure time to avoid a white blur, with looking for your shadow, and starting with a fresh roll of film and batteries among other pointers mentioned.

African moonbow: Lunar rainbow taken from the Zambian side of Victoria Falls


Of course, you’ve also got to know where to find moonbows, since there are only a small number of places in the world where they regularly materialise. Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Cumberland Falls in Kentucky, Yosemite Falls in California, and Waimea on Hawaii are some of the best known.

Perfect arc: A stunning arched moonbow formed over Hawaii


Harvest moonbow: A beautiful curve of colours over Cumberland Falls, USA


Dreamy scene: Water spray from Yosemite Falls brightly coloured by a moonbow


Yosemite is such a hotspot for viewing moonbows that a team of astronomers at Texas State University were inspired to develop a computer programme which can reliably predict when moonbows are likely to appear at the falls of America’s famous national park – other factors such as a clear sky permitting.

Wash of colour: Another moonbow forming beneath Lower Yosemite Falls


People have been watching moonbows since Aristotle’s day – and doubtless long before – but this research is the first time anyone has calculated precise dates and times for their appearance. Now it is hoped we may better appreciate this incredible yet elusive natural wonder.

Picture this: Star trails get in on the act in our final glorious shot from Yosemite


Let’s leave with the words of naturalist and pioneering environmentalist John Muir in an extract from his 1912 book, The Yosemite, which describes the great man’s experience of a moonbow: “This grand arc of color, glowing in mild, shapely beauty in so weird and huge a chamber of night shadows, and amid the rush and roar and tumultuous dashing of this thunder-voiced fall, is one of the most impressive and most cheering of all the blessed mountain evangels.”


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