Pink Morning Clouds | Hampton Bays, New York

© Sophie W. Smith

Joined October 2012

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Cloud coloration
The color of a cloud, as seen from the Earth, tells much about what is going on inside the cloud. Dense deep tropospheric clouds exhibit a high reflectance (70% to 95%) throughout the visible spectrum. Tiny particles of water are densely packed and sunlight cannot penetrate far into the cloud before it is reflected out, giving a cloud its characteristic white color, especially when viewed from the top. Cloud droplets tend to scatter light efficiently, so that the intensity of the solar radiation decreases with depth into the gases. As a result, the cloud base can vary from a very light to very dark grey depending on the cloud’s thickness and how much light is being reflected or transmitted back to the observer. Thin clouds may look white or appear to have acquired the color of their environment or background. High tropospheric and non-tropospheric clouds appear mostly white if composed entirely of ice crystals and/or supercooled water droplets.
As a tropospheric cloud matures, the dense water droplets may combine to produce larger droplets, which may combine to form droplets large enough to fall as rain. By this process of accumulation, the space between droplets becomes increasingly larger, permitting light to penetrate farther into the cloud. If the cloud is sufficiently large and the droplets within are spaced far enough apart, it may be that a percentage of the light which enters the cloud is not reflected back out before it is absorbed. A simple example of this is being able to see farther in heavy rain than in heavy fog. This process of reflection/absorption is what causes the range of cloud color from white to black.
Other colors occur naturally in clouds. Bluish-grey is the result of light scattering within the cloud. In the visible spectrum, blue and green are at the short end of light’s visible wavelengths, while red and yellow are at the long end. The short rays are more easily scattered by water droplets, and the long rays are more likely to be absorbed. The bluish color is evidence that such scattering is being produced by rain-sized droplets in the cloud. A greenish tinge to a cloud is produced when sunlight is scattered by ice. A cumulonimbus cloud emitting green is a sign that it is a severe thunderstorm, capable of heavy rain, hail, strong winds and possible tornadoes. Yellowish clouds may occur in the late spring through early fall months during forest fire season. The yellow color is due to the presence of pollutants in the smoke. Yellowish clouds caused by the presence of nitrogen dioxide are sometimes seen in urban areas with high air pollution levels.
Red, orange and pink clouds occur almost entirely at sunrise and sunset and are the result of the scattering of sunlight by the atmosphere. When the angle between the sun and the horizon is less than 10 percent, as it is just after sunrise or just prior to sunset, sunlight becomes too red due to refraction for any colors other than those with a reddish hue to be seen. The clouds do not become that color; they are reflecting long and unscattered rays of sunlight, which are predominant at those hours. The effect is much like if one were to shine a red spotlight on a white sheet. In combination with large, mature thunderheads this can produce blood-red clouds. Clouds look darker in the near-infrared because water absorbs solar radiation at those wavelengths. Read more

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