Have you ever heard of a green flash sunset? You might think it’s a myth, but this is a real phenomenon that you can see if the conditions are just right. If you’re watching the Sun dip down on the horizon you might see a green dot appear just above the Sun for just a second. That’s a green flash sunset, and if you saw one, you’re a very lucky person.
Green flashes can occur at sunrise or sunset, and to see one, you need to have an unobstructed view to the horizon. They occur because the light from the Sun is refracted – or bent – as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, following the curvature of the Earth. Higher frequency light (bluer light) is bent more than lower frequency light. This is happening all the time, but we’re seeing all the colors of the light spectrum at the same time. But when the Sun is right at the horizon, the redder hues of the color spectrum are blocked by the horizon of the Earth, while the higher frequency wavelengths are still following the curve of the Earth. While the redder light is blocked, the green and blue light is still visible, so we see the green flash.
There are actually a few different kinds of green flashes that can occur. The most common example is an inferior-mirage flash, where a dot of green light appears on top of the Sun just as it’s gone below the horizon. But you can also get a situation where a portion of the Sun’s upper edge turns slightly green, or even a green beam of light appears above the Sun.
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If you’d like more info on green flashes, check out this introduction to green flashes.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.