If you are a parent or are old enough to babysit younger relatives there is one question children ask that stumps most adults. It’s what color is the sky or why is the sky blue. This article will tell you why and do it in as simple a way as possible so that the next time a kids ask the question you have a good answer.
To understand why the sky is blue you need to remember how color works. Color is largely caused by how well an object absorbs the light spectrum. When you see a blue sky you only see blue because all the other colors were absorbed in the air. Any object with color works that way. For example a red ball is read because all the colors of light are absorbed by the ball except for red. This reflected light is what gives the object color.
This is what happens with the sky. The atmosphere is denser than we imagine and the different gases give the atmosphere unique properties in how it absorbs, diffuses, and reflects light. When sunlight passes through our atmosphere a portion of it is scattered and absorbed. The remainder either reaches the surface or is reflected back. The portion that makes it to us observers is 75 percent.
This process is called diffused sky radiation. So to review, we color because objects due to texture of dyes and surfaces absorb all light wavelengths and reflect back one or more. The reason we see the sky as blue is because the molecules in the air scatter the light absorbing most wavelengths of light except for blue.
In addition to this the sky is gray and overcast because of the water droplets in the atmosphere in the forms of clouds and humidity. water refracts light equally unlike air molecules in the atmosphere. This means we get the entirety of white light only it is dimmer just like when you shine a light through a white sheet.
The fact we see a blue sky is good thing because its shows that are atmosphere is at work shielding us from the full energy of the sun’s rays. While the sun is the largest source of energy to our planet, a lot of its high energy radiation that is deadly for living things. Our atmosphere plays it part by shielding us from that. So when you see a blue sky with your kid you can tell them it means the sky is acting like a huge shade blocking out the bad parts of the sun.
We have written many articles about the earth’s sky for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why the sky is blue, and here’s an article about how to find Venus in the sky.
If you’d like more info on the earth’s sky, check out an article about Strange Clouds. And here’s a link to NASA Space Place Article on Blue Sky.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Sky Survey. Listen here, Episode 118: Sky Surveys.