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High Points: On rainbows and outlandish skies

Paul E. Anna
High Points:

If you were in the Roaring Fork Valley on Monday night, you had to be impressed. A passing storm at dusk coalesced with the setting sun to create not only an outlandishly gorgeous sky but an unusually large and vivid rainbow that could be seen for miles. It was a pot of psychic gold for anyone who happened to catch sight of it.

What was it that John Denver character used to sing? “I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky. …” Well, that was exactly what was going on. Densely dark storm clouds moved across the heavens, shedding large droplets of pristine rain that were illuminated by the sun as it slipped below the edge of the clouds, just above the horizon. A gauzy layer of light lit up the greening hillsides in a color for which there is not a word. It was the best sunset of the spring thus far.

But that rainbow, stretching itself across the entire valley from north to south, stole the show. The gaudy arc of melded red, yellow and blue light was so bright that is seemed like it was a product of stage lights steaming skyward rather than a work of nature. Had it been man-made it would have seemed gaudy. Just a bit too much color. But this was an act of art created by a moment in climatological time.



Rainbows, like smiles, are one of those things that make everyone happy. They are a universal elixir, brightening any bad day. The kind of thing that just makes everyone say “wow” in whatever language they may speak.

And yet, they aren’t actually “real.” Rather, they are an optical illusion that we see when the sun shines from behind us at precisely 42 degrees on an airborne drop of water in front of us. It is the way that the light is reflected and refracted in the raindrops that causes the colors to appear, ethereal as they may be. The colors on a primary rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (ROY G. BIV is the acronym that rainbow-holics use to remember the spectrum) and are always in order of their wavelength, from longest to shortest. Two people looking at the rainbow from different places, say you in Woody Creek and me in Old Snowmass, see the colors and the arc, but we see them differently because of the angle that we are observing it from.




For a time on Monday, I could see the faint outline of a double rainbow that appeared just above the shoot of the primary rainbow. Someone, someplace else in the valley, may have had a more vivid view of that secondary rainbow depending upon their location.

Think of that: A cosmic occurrence that doesn’t really exist as a static thing and that is seen differently by any two people depending upon their location and the angle of the sun as it hits the raindrops. Oh my.

This week’s rainbow is not likely to be repeated in the near term as we are in the driest month of our calendar and there is little to no rain on the foreseeable horizon. But maybe, just maybe, we will be back in the monsoon season come July and once again we will get those afternoon soakers that give way to a setting sun that creates those magical arcs of natural light.

Until then, sing it with me: “Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high.”