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Elusive quadruple rainbow photographed for first time.
October 5, 2011 5:15 PM   Subscribe

You've seen a double rainbow, if lucky a triple, but never a quadruple rainbow. Until now (?).

The last link claims only 5 triple rainbows have ever been confirmed scientifically in the past 250 years, even though two links here show triples (*maybe), and what could be a quadruple in the second link. The last link shows a quadruple picture taken by a rainbow chasing rainbowologist but I honestly can't tell, maybe you can.

(*) Are they really triples if the bows are not parallel, or simply a double and a single nearby?
posted by stbalbach (52 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

How do they know the image isn't just flipped if the primary and secondary rainbows would be on the other side?
posted by cmoj at 5:37 PM on October 5, 2011

(*) Are they really triples if the bows are not parallel, or simply a double and a single nearby?

I'm not really that well schooled in optics... but since rainbows are cast from a light source, usually the sun, and there's a defined way that sunlight bends when encountering water droplets, how could it be physically possible for there to be more than one set of circles (usually only seen in part) cast from that light source viewable from any single vantage point?

Seems (to my tiny bear brain) that any set of multiple rainbows would have to be in concentric circles, and anything which falls outside that is probably photoshop fakery.

I'd welcome learning more to help me know I'm right or wrong. Anyone care to help elucidate?
posted by hippybear at 5:51 PM on October 5, 2011

so intense
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 5:51 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Mandatory meme reference: A double rainbow!...Oh my God! What does it mean?

I unironically love that video. That man's wonder and awe are so intense that they give me a contact high.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:53 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

That man's wonder and awe are dose of shrooms is so intense that they give me a contact high.
posted by hippybear at 5:57 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have seen a double rainbow, as well as an almost completely circular rainbow, but I can only see three in that picture unless the 4th one is too dim to show up properly on a jpg...
posted by porpoise at 5:58 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

how could it be physically possible for there to be more than one set of circles (usually only seen in part) cast from that light source viewable from any single vantage point?

Wikipedia has a decent write up.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:59 PM on October 5, 2011

Ok, I'll bite. I don't see it.
posted by schmod at 6:01 PM on October 5, 2011 [9 favorites]

I don't see it either. I think I see two rainbows.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:07 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

"THERE ARE FOUR RAINBOWS," proclaimed Meteorological Picard.

I myself don't feel like squinting that much and remain ambivalent.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:32 PM on October 5, 2011 [6 favorites]

rainbows huh
posted by curious nu at 6:35 PM on October 5, 2011

I just saw one of these myself- would have pulled out my camera and taken a photo to share with the whole world if it wasn't parents night at my kid's school. My kid would have been so embarrassed that I wasn't paying attention to her Geography teacher.....Seriously, though- three weeks ago in Philadelphia after a whammy storm? Anybody else see it?
posted by cometwendy at 6:36 PM on October 5, 2011

And, BTW, it was intense
posted by cometwendy at 6:37 PM on October 5, 2011

To clarify, for those missing it: the two rainbows in the picture are the 3rd and 4th ones. You can tell, because the sun is also in the shot. The 1st and 2nd rainbows show up opposite the sun - behind the photographer, in this case.
posted by NMcCoy at 6:40 PM on October 5, 2011

I once saw 4 rainbows. It was all different rainbows though. We were on the top of a mountain in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And as we were going down the mountain there were rainbows almost sprouting up all over the mountain. Here is a crappy cell phone picture from the summit.
posted by lilkeith07 at 6:43 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

The rainbows in the video are:
1. bright one in the center = a rainbow
2. slightly dimmer one above it = a different rainbow entirely (you can tell because it isn't concentric with 1.)
3. very dim one at the left side of 1. & 2. = secondary rainbow of 1. (you can tell because it's concentric with 1.)

Moral: Just because you see 3 rainbows together doesn't mean you've seen a tertiary.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:48 PM on October 5, 2011

This link was not nearly as awesome as I was expecting it to be. Sigh.
*squints at pic again*
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:56 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

A double rainbow appears just outside a regular rainbow, but dimmer. You see these when the sun is hitting your back. (We've all seen a rainbow, right? We've all seen a double rainbow too, right? Right?)

BUT! A tertiary rainbow is in an entirely different location. You have to swing around toward the sun, and look about 45° on either side of it. IF there is a tertiary, and IF there are dark storm clouds behind it then you MIGHT see it if you look really closely because at best it's going to be DIM.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:01 PM on October 5, 2011

I looked at that picture and all of a sudden my troubles melted like lemon drops, really quickly.
posted by unliteral at 7:12 PM on October 5, 2011

Hmm. Shouldn't the spectrum be facing the same way on each rainbow? In other words, the two rainbows that I see go VBGYOR ROYGBV. Does that make sense? Because I just drank a beer pretty fast and can't think of how to say what I mean and sound smart.
posted by Specklet at 7:18 PM on October 5, 2011

Quadruple rainbow, eh? Is that what the kids are calling lens flare these days? (By the way, Specklet. Despite his groundbreaking work studying rainbows in the northern Ukraine, Vbgyor Roygbv never saw a quadruple either. Sadly, he died a broken man, his weepy self-penned lament, "Fullsome Prism Blues", remembered today by only a few of his closest friends and optics trivia buffs.)
posted by Mike D at 7:26 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Nope. The spectra should be opposite. VBGYOR ROYGBV is correct, at least in the case of double rainbows. If you ever see a picture of a double rainbow where the two have the same order of colors from inside to outside, you can guarantee it's been photoshopped. I'm assuming that the third and fourth follow the same principle for similar reasons.

I'm also glad you left out Indigo.
posted by squarehead at 7:29 PM on October 5, 2011

Sprecklet: A regular rainbow goes ROYGBIV from top to bottom. A double rainbow, outisde the regular rainbow, has the colors reversed: VIBGYOR from top to bottom. This is normal and completely expected and explained by science and everything.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:29 PM on October 5, 2011

Also the area between the first and second rainbow is darker than the area within the first rainbow or outside the second. This is also explained by science.
posted by squarehead at 7:32 PM on October 5, 2011

Thank you for the clarification, about science and everything. And for the story about Vbgyor Roygbv, which made me giggle.
posted by Specklet at 7:42 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I only see two. Also, that site seems confused about how "see full size image" should work. Or my monitor is just really out of date.
posted by sanko at 7:46 PM on October 5, 2011

I had a really awesome rainbow experience this past summer. A friend and I cycled 70 miles up the Hudson River, from Beacon to Hudson one day, then back the next. As we got close to Newburgh on the second day, it had been raining for the last 15 miles, my hands were scraped from a wipeout I suffered just as the rain had started, and my rear tire was on its third tube and second tread. But as we neared the Newburgh-Beacon bridge, the wind started blowing the rain and clouds across the Hudson to the east, and the setting sun gave us a rainbow that actually curled down and under the bridge ahead of us as we rode across, for a near total circle.

I'm guessing the pot of gold is somewhere under that bridge.
posted by A dead Quaker at 8:01 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I did get to photograph a truly awesome double, it was neon-bright, and just amazing. There have been three times I got good pictures of rainbows and two were doubles.
That guy in the film, very, very, high.... But if you turn the soun off, very good footage.
I had trouble seeing four rainbows, but I am using my iPod.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:02 PM on October 5, 2011

Seems like quite often I've seen a double rainbox with multiple little rainbows, two or three or maybe more, close together, like ripples in water, inside the double. Doesn't that count as a quad?
posted by ottereroticist at 9:10 PM on October 5, 2011

I'll be damned if I let any of you bastards lay a hand on me Lucky Charms.
posted by not_on_display at 10:02 PM on October 5, 2011

Thank you for sharing this amazing phenomenon, stbalbach.

squarehead: " I'm also glad you left out Indigo."

Excuse me?
posted by IndigoRain at 12:07 AM on October 6, 2011

I can see four.. screen brightness and angle matter.
posted by edgeways at 12:51 AM on October 6, 2011

I couldn't see it and no amount of dicking about in Photoshop managed to make it more obvious.
posted by public at 2:08 AM on October 6, 2011

To those who are saying they only see two rainbows: those are the tertiary and quaternary rainbows. The primary and secondary rainbows are behind the camera.

That is to say, you face away from the sun to see the primary and secondary rainbows, and have to look towards the sun to see the tertiary and quaternary ones.

The article could have done with a diagram explaining this.
posted by nowonmai at 2:51 AM on October 6, 2011

If you look closely you can alSo see 4 poptart cats shitting the bows out and singing into space.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:51 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

This diagram shows the paths that light takes through raindrops to produce rainbows. 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th order rainbows are produced by light that is reflected back towards the source (you see them with your back to the sun) and 3rd and 4th order rainbows are produced by light that passes through the drop, away from the light source (so you have to look towards the sun).
posted by nowonmai at 3:04 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Needs more unicorns.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:15 AM on October 6, 2011

I saw a tertiary rainbow in 1974 under circumstances I hope are never repeated: during the Super Outbreak of tornadoes. I can confirm that the order of colors is the same as the primary. Conditions were probably right for a quaternary, and it may well have been visible from my position, but I didn't spot it. Sorry no photos -- I had other concerns at the time.
posted by Herodios at 6:21 AM on October 6, 2011

I have seen a triple. I was on my way into Boston from the west to attend the wedding of a friend. As I topped Belmont Hill on Rte 2, the Boston skyline was spread out in front of me, as usual, but there was a very intense triple rainbow sitting on it. I could see both ends of all three bows, and the center was really dark.

A bunch of other people at the wedding saw it, too. We were all sure it was a terrific omen. It may have been a good omen for something, but the guy's marriage ended in divorce.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:33 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't be the only one still confused here.

People are saying the first two rainbows are out of the shot of the photograph - behind the sun - yet others are saying they see four rainbows?

If this is some lame 4chan meme, and the image, after prolonged viewing - searching for these elusive rainbows - is going to quickly flash to a goatse and make my browser explode into a thousand lemonparty windows, I'm gonna be pissed. Real pissed.

Can someone explain this to me with handpuppets?
posted by metaxa at 6:48 AM on October 6, 2011

I'd much rather see a single vivid rainbow than whatever the hell this is.
posted by thorny at 8:11 AM on October 6, 2011

hippybear: since rainbows are cast from a light source, usually the sun, … how could it be physically possible for there to be more than one set of circles viewable from any single vantage point?

The answer to that is likely reflection rainbows, where one set is caused by the sun, and one by a reflection from another source, such as a reflection from a lake. This diagram (from here) should explain.
posted by nowonmai at 8:12 AM on October 6, 2011

metaxa: My understanding is that the people who claim to see 4 rainbows in that photo are on crack. The photo shows a pair of tertiary and quaternary (or 3rd order and 4th order) rainbows. These are incredibly faint and only about 40° from the sun, so very hard to photograph.

A first order rainbow is caused by light that has been reflected once off the back of raindrops; a second order rainbow is formed by light that is reflected twice within a raindrop, and so on. If you look at the diagram I linked earlier, it explains why first and second order rainbows are visible with your back to the sun: light coming from over your shoulder hits raindrops in front of you and is reflected back towards you. Third and fourth order rainbows come from raindrops that are between you and the sun, so you have to turn your back on the primary rainbow and squint into the glare of the sun to see them.

The article (and hence this post) has a slightly misleading headline in calling this a "quadruple rainbow"; that would imply four concentric rainbows or something and I'm not sure what would cause a visible one of those. The triple rainbow described by Kirth Gerson over Boston is not a primary + secondary + tertiary combo, but something else. Possibly a double rainbow with pronounced supernumaries, or a particularly well-placed reflection rainbow, or something else.
posted by nowonmai at 8:38 AM on October 6, 2011

I think it is beautiful regardless it is't flipped photo, glare, or otherwise distorted :)
posted by Thompson Sullivan at 9:05 AM on October 6, 2011

Make sure to read the article!
posted by Xoebe at 10:24 AM on October 6, 2011

So, nowonmai, what you're saying is that a quaternary rainbow, which is what is in the picture, is much, much different than a quadruple rainbow (whatever that is)?

Because that makes much more sense. It seems the words "quaternary" is for some reason being confuzzled by with "quadruple."

If it is a photo of a quadruple rainbow, it is unsuccessful. It does not show four rainbows. It shows two rainbows, and apparently two invisible rainbows.

I don't like poo-pooing on stuff, but color me unimpressed.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:32 AM on October 6, 2011

The lovers, the dreamers, and me... and some other guys.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:59 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

nowonmai's link to is probably the most amazing resource I've ever seen for understanding anything. It pretty much exhaustively covers everything you could ever think is related to a rainbow, from reflection rainbows, dewbows and spray bows, to ice crystal halos, (cue sundogs, tangent arcs, and sun pillars) to rainbows produced by traffic signs and leftover reflective beads after painting crosswalk signs. All well documented and explained, even using light effect simulators. Amazing.
posted by brenton at 12:42 PM on October 6, 2011

posted by Evilspork at 5:01 PM on October 6, 2011

brenton: "dewbows and spray bows, to ice crystal halos,"

♫ ...these are a few of my favorite things! ♫
posted by IndigoRain at 11:13 PM on October 6, 2011

jabbberjaw: That's exactly what I was saying. And if you ignore the headline, the picture caption also describes these as third and fourth order rainbows. Most of the reporting on this image around the net has gone with "triple" and "quadruple", but that's just plain wrong.

This, by the way, is the source of the picture and although most of us won't have access to the full text, the title of the article is pretty clear as to what it is.
posted by nowonmai at 3:49 AM on October 7, 2011

Possibly helpful explanation, aided by nowonmai's linked diagram and wikipedia:

A rainbow is a hologram. It doesn't exist. If you went to where it looks like it is, it wouldn't be there. The droplets would be there, but the light is being reflected toward somewhere else. It is caused by water droplets acting like prisms. They occur when there are water droplets in the air of a certain size and concentration. The higher the concentration of water droplets, the brighter the rainbow. Also, if there is a lot of mist in the air between you and the water droplets creating the rainbow, you won't see it.

OK, so the light hits those water droplets, reflects and bends around inside of them, and the light shoots out in prismatic fashion. If the light bounces once, it shoots out a rainbow back toward the sun with blue on the inside of the circle, and red on the outside. Because these are being reflected back toward the sun, you can only see them with your back at the sun. That's a first order rainbow. For a second order rainbow, the light bounces twice, which reverses the color order and changes the angle to slightly wider, and the viewer sees a rainbow that's a little bigger and a little dimmer.

For the third and fourth order rainbows, the light bounces around inside the water droplet three and four times. This changes the direction that the light is being shot out at, now away from the sun. So you can only see these rainbows when you are facing toward the sun.

So we know those are tertiary and quaternary rainbows because the camera is facing toward the sun.

Another way to visualize it: think of the misty air as a semi-transparent projector screen. You aim the projector at the screen. The first and second order rainbows would reflect back toward you from the screen. The third and fourth order rainbows would project through the screen and only be visible if you went behind the screen and looked back at it.
posted by gjc at 8:29 AM on October 7, 2011

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