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

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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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.
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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.
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7. JeffMasters (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...
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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!
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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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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather