Catching the Green Flash

by FIN |

Top: Sunrise at Smith Point by Michael Busch of Great South Bay Images.
Bottom: Sunset at Ocean Beach Marina by Shoshanna McCollum

By Rebecca Hoey

Green flash at sunset,
Young love recaptured,
Just an illusion,
Would it were true – Jimmy Buffett

The amount of romance that our amazing sky alludes is unarguable. But for some, it may not be an immediate thought that science is taking place at the same time, creating such enticing beauty. If you’ve found yourself gazing up at the brilliance of a summer eve’s sunset, or searching for a new day’s shimmering and warm-colored sunrise, then there’s a good chance that you have witnessed a rare optical phenomenon scientists have dubbed, “Green Flash.”

This seemingly mystical occurrence has been the subject of books, poetry, songs, and movies dating back hundreds of years. With a skosh of green seemingly outlining the sun, and other times a dab of green looking as if it’s perched on the sun, most anyone can be lucky enough to view this phenomena that appears amidst a perfect atmospheric setup. It can be seen either at the tail end of a sunset or on the cusp of a sunrise.

Green flash’s are the real deal!

“It’s not an illusion, it’s an actual physical thing,” explains U.C. Berkeley Physicist Athena Gordon. “ The right temperature in both the water and the air can create the perfect atmosphere for the flash.”

Long Island photographer Mike Busch, who has been photographing in and around the Great South Bay since about 2012, has actually captured several different green flashes. Seeing all with a clear eye, Busch’s photos take us directly to the sun during its brief brush with green glory without any need for photo editing.

“It was visible to the eye through the camera viewfinder and not something enhanced or created after the fact with editing software. I knew at the time of the shot exactly what it was,” said Busch.

There are four different types of green flashes: inferior mirage, mock mirage, subduct flash, and green ray. Gordon suggests not allowing that first part of the inferior mirage fool you, as there is nothing “inferior” about what transpires when a green flash occurs. The word inferior is actually referring to the position of the image. They are seen just above the horizon. A mock mirage is seen higher up in the sky.

So why the name green flash? Green is, of course, the color we see during the event.

“As the sun sets just below the horizon, the longer wavelength light (red/yellow/orange) is blocked by the horizon,” Gordon says. “The highest wavelength light (blue and violet) is already scattered away at sunset because the setting sun has so much atmosphere to go through. Just a quick flash of green light sneaks through to our eyes.”

The flash part of the name is because of how quickly the mirage disappears. You literally only have a matter of seconds to view it, which of course is why it’s so easy to miss. In the 1882 Jules Verne novel “The Green Ray,” it’s the star-crossed lovers who miss the special sight of the green flash by paying more attention to one another than to the setting sun.

So this summer, make it a point to get out on a clear night with your beach chair or blanket, sit back, and watch the sunset over the water. Of course if you’re an early bird you can do the same in the morning. Just be sure to watch the sky attentively.

About the Author

FIN

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