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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Is That Viral Quadruple Rainbow Picture Real?

By Phil Plait

This morning a picture tweeted by Nineteenth Amendment CEO Amanda Curtis on Long Island quickly went viral: It shows what looks like a quadruple rainbow!

I got some folks asking me if it’s real, and my immediate reaction is: Yup. Seriously, this doesn’t look faked to me, because I’ve seen this sort of thing before.

Double rainbows are fairly common (despite the meme). I’ve seen dozens of them; they’re caused when the sunlight hitting raindrops is particularly bright. The primary rainbow (the one you usually see) can be blazing, and you get a fainter but sometimes still quite bright secondary outside it, with the colors reversed. The primary forms when light is reflected inside a water drop once; the double is when the light’s reflected twice in each drop.

So why are there four rainbows? The angle of the weirder, more vertical bows is what gives it away. If the light forming rainbows reflects off a body of water (say, a lake, pond, or even standing water on a road), you get another set of rainbows cast at a different angle. I’ve never seen this myself, but there are plenty of pictures of it online.

So the picture is real! One thing I’ll add is that I think the colors have been enhanced; they’re a bit too garish to be real. But lots of phones do that, and of course people use filters when posting pictures all the time. But physically, yes, it’s real.

There you go. And it proves, once again, that you should heed my advice: Always look up. You never know what’s going on above your head.

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