A double green flash

At sunset, the sky is often painted with an array of oranges, reds and yellows, and even some shades of pink. There are, however, occasions when a green flash appears above the solar disc for a second or so. One such occurrence was captured beautifully in this picture taken from Cerro Paranal, a 2600-metre-high mountain in the Chilean Atacama Desert, by ESO Photo Ambassador Gianluca Lombardi. Cerro Paranal is home to ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

The green flash is a rather rare phenomenon; seeing such a transient event requires an unobstructed view of the setting (or rising) Sun and a very stable atmosphere. At Paranal the atmospheric conditions are just right for this, making the green flash a relatively common sight (see for example eso0812). But a double green flash such as this one is noteworthy even for Paranal.

The green flash occurs because the Earth’s atmosphere works like a giant prism that bends and disperses the sunlight. This effect is particularly significant at sunrise and sunset when the solar rays go through more of the lower, denser layers of the atmosphere. Shorter wavelength blue and green light from the Sun is bent more than longer wavelength orange and red, so it appears slightly higher in the sky than orange or red rays from the point of view of an observer.

When the Sun is close to the horizon and conditions are just right, a mirage effect related to the temperature gradient in the atmosphere can magnify the dispersion — the separation of colours — and produce the elusive green flash. A blue flash is almost never seen as the blue light is scattered by molecules and particles in the dense blanket of air towards the horizon.

The mirage can also distort the shape of the Sun and that of the flash. We see two bands of green light in this image because the weather conditions created two alternating cold and warm layers of air in the atmosphere.

This stunning photo was taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Gianluca Lombardi on 28 March 2011. The phenomenon was captured on camera as the Sun was setting on a sea of clouds below Cerro Paranal.


G. Lombardi (glphoto.it)/ESO

About the Image

Release date:21 November 2011, 10:00
Size:3366 x 1828 px

About the Object

Type:Solar System : Sky Phenomenon : Light Phenomenon : Sunrise-Sunset : Green flash
Category:Solar System

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