Rayleigh scattering is the elastic scattering of waves by particles that are much smaller than the wavelengths of those waves. The particles that scatter the light also need to have a refractive index close to 1. This law applies to all electromagnetic radiation, but in this atom we are going to focus specifically on why the atmosphere scatters the visible spectrum of electromagnetic waves, also known as visible light. In this case, the light is scattered by the gas molecules of the atmosphere, and the refractive index of air is 1.
Rayleigh scattering is due to the polarizability of an individual molecule. This polarity describes how much the electric charges in the molecule will vibrate in an electric field. The formula to calculate the intensity of the scattering for a single particle is as follows:
where I is the resulting intensity, I0 is the original intensity, α is the polarizability, λ is the wavelength, R is the distance to the particle, and θ is the scattering angle.
While you will probably not need to use this formula, it is important to understand that scattering has a strong dependence on wavelength. From the formula, we can see that a shorter wavelength will be scattered more strongly than a longer one.( The longer the wavelength, the larger the denominator, and from algebra we know that a larger denominator in a fraction means a smaller number. )
Why is the Sky Blue?
As we just learned, light scattering is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the light wavelength. So, the shorter the wavelength, the more it will get scattered. Since green and blue have relatively short wavelengths, you see a mixture of these colors in the sky, and the sky appears to be blue. When you look closer and closer to the sun, the light is not being scattered because it is approaching a 90-degree angle with the scattering particles. Since the light is being scattered less and less, you see the longer wavelengths, like red and yellow. This is why the sun appears to be a light yellow color.
Why are Sunsets Colorful?
shows a sunset. We know why the sky is blue, but why are there all those colors in a sunset? The reddening that occurs near the horizon is because the light has to pass through a significantly higher volume of air than when the sun is high in the sky. This increases the Rayleigh scattering effect and removes all blue light from the direct path of the observer. The remaining unscattered light is of longer wavelengths and so appears orange.