The unique optical properties of the atmosphere cause a wide range of spectacular optical phenomena. The blue colour of the sky is a direct result of Rayleigh scattering which redirects higher frequency (blue) sunlight back into the field of view of the observer. Because blue light is scattered more easily than red light, the sun takes on a reddish hue when it is observed through a thick atmosphere, as during a sunrise or sunset. Additional particulate matter in the sky can scatter different colours at different angles creating colourful glowing skies at dusk and dawn. Scattering off of ice crystals and other particles in the atmosphere are responsible for halos, afterglows, coronas, rays of sunlight, and sun dogs. The variation in these kinds of phenomena is due to different particle sizes and geometries.
Mirages are optical phenomena in which light rays are bent due to thermal variations in the refraction index of air, producing displaced or heavily distorted images of distant objects. Other dramatic optical phenomena associated with this include the Novaya Zemlya effect where the sun appears to rise earlier than predicted with a distorted shape. A spectacular form of refraction occurs with a temperature inversion called the Fata Morgana where objects on the horizon or even beyond the horizon, such as islands, cliffs, ships or icebergs, appear elongated and elevated, like "fairy tale castles".
Rainbows are the result of a combination of internal reflection and dispersive refraction of light in raindrops. A single reflection off the backs of an array of raindrops produces a rainbow with an angular size on the sky that ranges from 40° to 42° with red on the outside. Double rainbows are produced by two internal reflections with angular size of 50.5° to 54° with violet on the outside. Because rainbows are seen with the sun 180° away from the centre of the rainbow, rainbows are more prominent the closer the sun is to the horizon.
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“Nor has science sufficient humanity, so long as the naturalist overlooks the wonderful congruity which subsists between man and the world; of which he is lord, not because he is the most subtile inhabitant, but because he is its head and heart, and finds something of himself in every great and small thing, in every mountain stratum, in every new law of color, fact of astronomy, or atmospheric influence which observation or analysis lay open.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882)