Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why is Hawaii the Rainbow Capitol of the World?

Does Hawaii have the Best Rainbows on the Planet?  

The short answer to this question is yes, Hawaii has the most and best rainbows.  Even our sports teams are called the Rainbows. Rainbow in Hawaiian is "─ünuenue." In this post, I will try to explain the special circumstances in Hawaii's environment that make rainbows so brilliant and so frequent over our state.  Then I will talk about the Rainbow Stop and the new Rainbow App.

First some basics

To see a rainbow, we need to have sun low in one part of the sky and rain in another.  An observer can then see a rainbow if his/her back is to the sun and facing the rain shower.   A combination of refraction of sunlight as it enters and leaves the drop, and reflection at the back of the drop makes the rainbow visible to the observer, provided the sun is low enough in the sky so that the top of the bow is above the horizon.  The top of the rainbow appears at an angle of ~42 degrees above the head of the observers shadow. 

As the sun moves higher in the sky, the top of the rainbow moves lower.  The photo below is of a shallow rainbow produced by a sun that is rising higher in the morning sky.

Since violet light is refracted more than red light, the top of the bow is red and the bottom of the bow is violet.  See graphic and photo below.

So why is Hawaii the best place on the planet to view rainbows?

Now we can apply the basics above to help answer this question.  Hawaii certainly has bright sunlight, as a result of clean air and blue skies.  Except for an occasional influx of volcanic haze, also known as "vog," the air around Hawaii is exceptionally clean.  See how bright and white the sunlight is in the photo below, even though the sun is touching the horizon.  White light has all the colors that a rainbow needs.

The other ingredient required for a rainbow is rain.  And the rain has to fall from an isolated shower to allow the sunshine to reach under the cloud.  That's why rain from stratiform clouds don't produce many rainbows (see photo below taken in the Pacific Northwest). Blues skies and isolated showers are common in the prevailing trade winds that dominate Hawaii's weather.  See "The Flight of the Laysan Albatross" for more on trade wind weather.  

The Role of Clean Ocean Air

It is the clean marine air mass that surrounds Hawaii that ensures that small clouds produce plenty of rain.  The reason is that small cumulus clouds in clean trade wind air have fewer cloud droplets competing for the available water vapor.  Each cloud droplet forms on a particle in the air that allows the growing droplet to overcome "surface tension," the energy needed to create a new bit of interface between air and water.  Without these particles, also known as aerosol, the saturation in clouds would need to reach ~400% for condensation to take place and a cloud droplet to form. In clean air with fewer aerosol, cloud droplets grow larger than they would in polluted air.  A few large salt aerosol that are pulled up into the cloud from near the sea surface ensures that the growing Hawaiian cloud has everything it needs to produce rain.  The salt aerosol creates an extra large cloud droplet that soon begins to fall and sweep up smaller droplets in its path.  We call this process coalescence and it is particularly efficient in clean marine cumulus clouds (see photo below from Al Riordan).  The resulting rain is referred to as "warm rain."  In mainland air with lots more dust, pollen, and pollution, the small cumulus clouds don't rain because there are very many very small droplets and no large drops to trigger rain.  Under typical mainland conditions, taller clouds that contain ice crystals are needed to produce rain, in a "cold cloud" process that I will explain further in a future post.

The Important Role of Hawaii's Steep Mountains

There is yet another important factor at play in making Hawaii the rainbow capitol of the Planet.  Hawaii has an engine that makes rainbows appear even on drier days, and that is Hawaii's lush green mountains.  In the photo below, notice how the cumulus cloud preferentially forms over the Koolau Mountains.  That is because the mountains force the ocean air to rise and cool, causing cloud formation and rain.  I'll say more about this in a future post as well.

Here is a link to a time-lapse loop of a Koolau Mountain Rainbow 

So what is a Rainbow Stop?

In summary, Hawaii has clean air, bright sunshine, warm rains from isolated showers that are enhanced by our mountainous terrain.  It is a perfect combination to produce lots of spectacular rainbows.  In fact I was approached by a French professor who wanted to come to Hawaii on Sabbatical especially for the purpose of studying rainbows.  He is still working on the funding.  But he has identified the right location for sure.  The best time to find rainbows is early and late in the day for the optimum low sun angles.  In Hawaii mornings tend to have more showers, so early risers get the bow.  Now to answer the question of what is a rainbow stop?  Many people have complained to me that they often see rainbows while driving on the freeway and can't stop to appreciate them without causing a traffic jam.  So my friend Paul Cynn (with me in the photo below) came up with the idea of creating Rainbow Stops where folks can go to get the best view of our rainbows.  

Below is a draft map of Oahu I created that shows red stars for good viewing locations: Rainbow Stops.  The starred locations are lookouts and beach parks with excellent exposure to the sky.  But, when should folks go to the Rainbow Stops?  Anytime is a good time to stop and admire out beautiful skies.  However, that is where the Rainbow App comes in.  

What is the Rainbow App?

The Rainbow App is a smartphone app that uses information from radar and satellite along with your location and the sun's position in the sky to create a short term forecast or "nowcast" of where the most likely places are to see a rainbow during the next hour or so.  The app is currently being coded by scientists in my school, SOEST, at UHM.  If you want to learn more about the Rainbow App and Rainbow Stops go to  On this site you can also learn more about double rainbows, moonbows, and fogbows.  The photo of a fogbow below taken by me at the summit of Mauna Kea, could be the highest rainbow in Hawaii.  And please email me your best rainbow photos and we will share them on our site. 

Finally, the proof is in the photos....

Below are a selection of rainbow photographs taken by my colleague at UHM, Minghui Chen.  Not only is Ming an excellent rainbow photographer, he is also the lead programmer for the Rainbow App.  I will announce when the App is available on this blog.  A hui hou.

Below is a rainbow with a reflection.  This is possible to see if you can find still water or in this case wet pavement to reflect the bow.

Below is a rainbow with the Koolau Mountains in the background

Below is a rainbow seen from Diamond Head

Below is the lower part of a rainbow with the Koolau Mountains behind.