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Reflections in Nature: Rainbow is one of nature’s beautiful sights

Our daughter’s family visited us over the long Labor Day weekend, and on one of the days, we had a few rain showers. My wife, Mary Alice, always looks for a rainbow when the sun shines after a shower. Well, that day two of the rain showers ended with the sun appearing through the clouds, followed by a brilliantly colored rainbow appearing in the sky. What joy Mary Alice had when showing both of the rainbows to our great grandson.

One of nature’s most beautiful sights is a rainbow. A rainbow ranks right up there with a sunrise, sunset, first snow fall and changing seasons.

There has been speculation about rainbows ever since God made his promise to Noah. In Genesis 9:8, God said to Noah and his sons:

“I solemnly promise you and your children and the animals you brought with you — all these birds and cattle and wild animals — that I will never again send another flood to destroy the earth. And I seal this promise with this sign:

“I have placed my rainbow in the clouds as a sign of my promise until the end of time to you and to all the earth.

“When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds,

“And I will remember my promise to you and to every being, that never again will the floods come and destroy all life.

“For I will see the rainbow in the cloud and remember my eternal promise to every living being on the earth.”

Mary Alice mentioned that she only sees rainbows in the east. I replied, “Hmm, I’m not sure about that.” That night, I was looking through the World Book Encyclopedia and found that she was almost correct. A rainbow can only form in the part of the sky opposite the sun. To see a rainbow, the sun must be at your back, with moisture falling in front of you. If the sun is higher than 40 degrees, a rainbow cannot be seen.

In school, we were taught that a rainbow forms when the sun’s rays are reflected in drops of water.

The expression “all the colors of the rainbow” simply means there are many colors. Colors, such as violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red, blend into each other, why we rarely see more than four or five colors clearly. Also, there are several colors in the rainbow that appear to have wider bands than others.

A complete bow shows two bands of color. The primary band is the inner and brighter bow, and the secondary band is the outer and less distinct bow. The primary bow has the red on the outside and violet on the inside of the arch, which are the opposite in the secondary bow.

A rainbow is actually a complete circle. We view most of a rainbow as arches due to obstructions in the landscape that blocks our view. Also, the angle of the sun compared to the horizon and the point from where we view the rainbow makes it impossible to see the full circle. So, it is the horizon that is usually responsible for the rainbow appearing as an arch. If in an airplane or at a high altitude when a rainbow appears, a full circle can possibly be seen instead of an arch. This can be replicated on a smaller scale by misting water from a garden hose.

I also read in the encyclopedia that there is a moonbow rainbow. This happens when a rainbow forms by the light of the moon; however, the light is not as bright. The lunar rainbow has very faint colors, which are difficult to observe. The moon’s rainbow differs from the sun’s rainbow only in the intensity of the colors. With the sun being 400,000 times brighter than a full moon, a moonbow’s colors tend to be fairly dim, often too weak to be picked up by the color-detecting cells in our eyes. This means that we see more of a white rainbow, with white being the combination of all of light’s visible colors.

I’ve have never seen a lunar rainbow, however, in Kentucky, one can be seen at the Cumberland Falls, located in Cumberland State Park. There on a cloudless, full moon night, a faint moonbow appears over the spray from the falls. Also moonbows have been reported to appear over the upper falls in Yosemite National Park.

Much folklore concerning the rainbow has been handed down through the generations. It was said that the ancient Greeks believed the rainbow was the Bridge of Iris, a goddess messenger who carried news of war and death. Early Christians believed the rainbow to be the ray of light falling to earth whenever St. Peter opened the Heavenly Gates. A German myth had God using the rainbow as a bowl of colors from which he painted the world’s birds. Africans saw the rainbow as a giant serpent that came out of the forest after a storm, devouring anyone beneath the arch.

Some Europeans imagined the rainbow was a snake that sucked water from the sea, lakes, and rivers and then redistributed the water. And lastly, I’m sure we have all heard about the famous “pot of gold” which comes from Europe. The story told that an angel sat on the bow and dropped little golden bowls that became the “pot of gold.”

To me, the rainbow is a promise from God. I am also reminded of his other promise: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

I am thankful for both promises and look forward to the changing seasons.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at www.onemaningreen.com.

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