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Iridescent Clouds: The Science Behind The Rainbow-Colored Phenomena (Video)

Por: Gaby FL25 de octubre de 2021

The mysterious iridescent clouds appear as a colorful brushstroke in the sky and give us magical sights, but what is the explanation behind them?

The sky is in charge of giving us the greatest phenomena. In the dark of the night, we can observe in its vault the movements of the stars and the brilliant meteor showers. But, during the day, visual spectacles also parade through it, capable of astonishing anyone who allows themselves to look up. Still, serendipity must occur to observe some of them, like the mysterious iridescent clouds that stain the sky with colors with their visual poetry.

From time to time, rainbows may appear in the sky. We are certainly used to them. However, it can also happen that vaporous clouds may intermingle with colored brushstrokes as if they were transformed into rainbows. These are known as iridescent clouds, the result of a beautiful optical phenomenon.

What are iridescent clouds, and why do they occur?

Iridescent clouds are a rare phenomenon. So, when they appear, they quickly become relevant among lovers of natural beauty. But there is an explanation behind this strange and ineffable natural phenomenon. The iridescence of the clouds appears as a result of the diffraction of sunlight through the small drops of water; or even small crystals, that make up the clouds. When the sun's rays pass through the tiny droplets, the light is deflected individually.

And, although their iridescence can immediately take us back to a rainbow, it should be noted that it is not the same phenomenon that causes them. The rainbow appears thanks to the refraction of light that breaks down into a visible spectrum, so we always look at the same seven colors in this phenomenon. In contrast, iridescent clouds are more like what happens in puddles of water when oil or gasoline is spilled.

Refraction and diffraction

When we talk about refraction, we mean the scattering of light. But when we talk about diffraction, it refers more to the deflection of the sun's rays. For this reason, iridescent clouds tend to appear in cloud formations that have a short time of life, since the drops are usually very small and have more opportunity to act as a new transmitter that will deform the rays that pass through it. In other words, diffraction occurs when light passes through such a tiny obstacle (droplets) that it distorts the light waves. The result is a pattern of iridescent spots in the sky, usually behind the clouds.

But when it comes to nature, situations cannot be deterministic, so different types of iridescent clouds have appeared in the heights. Many of them look pearly, while others look more like a rainbow. However it may be, all of them are exquisite to observe.

Text courtesy of Ecoosfera
Photos by Göran Strand
Translated by Gaby Flores

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