The 360-degree Rainbow

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 8:18 PM GMT on April 14, 2005

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Most people don't realize it, but a rainbow is actually a full circle. You usually can't see the full circle, since half of the rainbow lies beneath the horizon, where it is not raining. After all, there is no weather underground. However, if one is in an airplane or overlooking a waterfall, the 360-degree rainbow can be seen. I know--I have seen them twice from research airplanes that were flying through rain showers. Check out the 360-degree rainbow image at the bottom. Note that there is a separate optical phenomena, called a glory (caused by diffraction), surrounding the shadow of the airplane. Unfortunately, I only had a 23mm wide angle lens, and could not capture the entire 360-degree rainbow. To my knowledge, no one has captured a photograph of a full NATURAL 360-degree rainbow. You can easily photograph one using a sprinkler, as this photographer has done here.

I challenge all you wunderphotographers to capture a 360-degree rainbow image in rain or waterfall mist. First photographer to post such a natural 360-degree rainbow image wins a free 2-year membership!

Update: In 2013, a photographer on a helicopter in Australia captured a beautiful picture of a 360-degree rainbow, posted at NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website.

Jeff Masters

360-degree rainbow (JeffMasters)
A rainbow is not a half-circle, but a full circle, as this photo taken from NOAA's P-3 Orion weather reseach aircraft demonstrates. A rain shower beneath the aircraft allowed me to see the entire circle of the rainbow, although the 23-mm wide angle lens was not quite wide enough to capture the entire circle.
360-degree rainbow

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48. vidarito
3:56 PM GMT on November 25, 2014
Very interesting on rainbow science. Thanks.
Member Since: October 26, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
46. winter123
7:27 PM GMT on May 10, 2014
On mobile and got here by mistake. So glad I did! I had no idea a full circle rainbow could be viewed.
Member Since: July 29, 2006 Posts: 28 Comments: 1802
44. happykaren
9:27 PM GMT on March 17, 2014
I like how it is a circle rainbow...great capture

Printing Services
Member Since: March 15, 2014 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
43. leonrosk
6:20 PM GMT on September 12, 2013
As a young merchant seaman many years ago, caught in a sudden tropical downpour in bright sunshine, I'd climbed the ladder to the next deck and looking behind me saw a double rainbow making a complete circle.

It was in the form of a slanted disc with the bottom of the disc at my feet and the top above the horizon (seemingly a long way away).

I realised that the angle of the disc was in a line with the sun behind me passing through my head to the illusion in front of me.

Since that time I know that I have to look for the rainbow with the sun behind me, and that latitude, and the height of the sun above the horizon, determines how high the top of the rainbow appears to be in the sky.
Member Since: August 28, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
42. snotly
1:11 AM GMT on September 10, 2013
No weather under ground, then how come some caves here in MO are always 58 F and 100% humidity?
Member Since: August 27, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 686
41. Dakster
1:46 PM GMT on September 09, 2013
So who won the photo of a 360 degree rainbow?
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 11173
39. islander101010
11:11 PM GMT on August 25, 2013
spreading like poison ivey..favorable conditions throughout the basin
Member Since: September 11, 2010 Posts: 1 Comments: 5148
38. Kumo
10:22 PM GMT on August 25, 2013
You should totally get this guy to do commentary on a 360-degree rainbow.
Member Since: August 3, 2012 Posts: 15 Comments: 145
34. wxchaser97
6:30 PM GMT on November 23, 2012
I had to see where it all started.

wxchaser97 was and is here...
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7978
33. MTWX
7:55 PM GMT on September 14, 2012
Was reading back through the old Katrina Blogs, and figured I'd stop in to see where it all began....

MTWX was here...
Member Since: July 20, 2009 Posts: 23 Comments: 1393
32. TomTaylor
7:13 AM GMT on September 01, 2012
Can we make this the new hangout spot?
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 19 Comments: 4358
31. MAweatherboy1
1:46 AM GMT on August 11, 2012
Wow, the first entry... 31 comments in 7 years.
Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 85 Comments: 8135
30. TropicalAnalystwx13
1:20 AM GMT on August 11, 2012
Quoting CybrTeddy:
Oh this blog has no idea what it's in for..'ve got that right, lol.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 33469
29. TomTaylor
7:29 AM GMT on July 16, 2012
TomTaylor was here
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 19 Comments: 4358
28. WxGeekVA
3:19 AM GMT on May 17, 2012
If only one knew where this blog would be now.... Thanks for the original entry Dr. M.
Member Since: September 3, 2011 Posts: 13 Comments: 3481
27. SomeChaz
1:32 AM GMT on February 17, 2010
A different but also exciting phenomena is the "sundog"; in which rays refract through ice crystals. The differing index of refraction of solid water leads to a smaller radius rainbow even without clouds or rain present. Since the radius is tighter, one can often see the full circle. I saw one three days ago in Madison, WI, but I didn't have my camera. Here's an example:
26. CybrTeddy
1:42 AM GMT on June 30, 2009
Oh this blog has no idea what it's in for..
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24686
25. cycloone
8:48 PM GMT on October 22, 2008
Member Since: March 2, 2003 Posts: 65 Comments: 1009
8:29 PM GMT on July 29, 2008
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 183 Comments: 57318
23. OneDay
5:56 PM GMT on August 01, 2006
Just thought I'd drop a message on the "original."

Too cool.
Member Since: July 13, 2005 Posts: 35 Comments: 931
22. turtlehurricane
4:55 AM GMT on July 02, 2006
Flash to the past. Back to the future.
Member Since: July 22, 2005 Posts: 227 Comments: 469
21. Alec
4:38 AM GMT on June 22, 2006
hey im here!!!!!!!cooooooooool!!!!!!!!
20. atmosweather
4:34 AM GMT on June 22, 2006
Member Since: September 24, 2005 Posts: 33 Comments: 9265
19. Levi32
4:33 AM GMT on June 22, 2006
Welcom to WU Dr. Master's! ROFL!!!
Member Since: November 24, 2005 Posts: 635 Comments: 26731
17. shaviator
1:46 PM GMT on April 25, 2005
I have seen the "glory" rainbow many times from my plane but have also heard it called "the aviator's halo".
16. Groundrush
4:30 PM GMT on April 23, 2005
I have seen these before, when I'm skydiving and I steer my parachute into a cloud. I wish I would have had a camera with me!
Member Since: February 18, 2004 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
15. Lemurian
8:09 PM PDT on April 22, 2005
Jeff says "After all, there is no weather underground." If this is true, then where are we??? LOL
Member Since: August 20, 2004 Posts: 20 Comments: 0
11:10 PM GMT on April 22, 2005
13. stuckindeleware
12:40 PM GMT on April 22, 2005
If a rainbow is a full circle...then WHERE'S THE POT OF GOLD???? I feel cheated.
Member Since: April 22, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
12. Aaron Cowdin , Lead Developer (Admin)
4:57 PM PDT on April 21, 2005
You can also create a link to an image by selecting the text you wish to link and clicking the link button above the comment text box. Like so.
9. phoebe5555
10:24 PM GMT on April 21, 2005
I wondered if you saw this photo from Albania. It struck me and then I read your blog and it reminded me of this photo.
This is the URL.
Member Since: April 17, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
8. WMMcLaughlin
8:59 PM GMT on April 21, 2005
Never seen a 360, but I have seen a double, at least once, in Scotland I think. Have seen glories as an airline passenger.

But, courtesy of Uncle Sam's Great Grey Ocean Liners, I have also seen the Green Flash of the Tropics and The Corposant once each. Was watching for the Green Flash, but the Corposant was a surprise, and a year and an ocean before seeing the Green Flash.
7. Dr. Jeff Masters , Director of Meteorology (Admin)
2:49 PM EDT on April 21, 2005
The 360 rainbow that circles the shadow of the airplane that ruffair refers to is a separate optical phenomena, called a glory, and is not a true rainbow. A glory is an optical diffraction effect consisting of concentric rings of color centered about the shadow of an observer's head, located on a cloud of water drops. You can see a glory surrounding the shadow of the airplane in my 360-degree rainbow photo. Also, check out this glory photo, taken from a mountaintop.
4. ruffair
3:39 PM GMT on April 21, 2005
I've seen the 360 rainbows many times. I always have a window seat in the front of the jet. One of the best is desending into cloud tops with the sun directly behind... in the water vapor that is the cloud top, you get a 360 rainbow that circles the shadow of the airplane... never have got the camara out in time...
Member Since: November 5, 2003 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
3. geckotoes
10:49 AM GMT on April 21, 2005
Thanks! I've seen this from an airplane, too, but was beginning to doubt my memory because no one I know has seen such a thing. This is gorgeous!
2. rmh9903
5:33 AM GMT on April 21, 2005
A rainbow is a true sight of beauty. Not only that but the have a sense of peace about them. Too bad they seem so limited in time.

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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