The 360-degree Rainbow

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 8:18 PM GMT on April 14, 2005

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Most people don't realize it, but a rainbow is actually a full circle. You usually can't see the full circle, since half of the rainbow lies beneath the horizon, where it is not raining. After all, there is no weather underground. However, if one is in an airplane or overlooking a waterfall, the 360-degree rainbow can be seen. I know--I have seen them twice from research airplanes that were flying through rain showers. Check out the 360-degree rainbow image at the bottom. Note that there is a separate optical phenomena, called a glory (caused by diffraction), surrounding the shadow of the airplane. Unfortunately, I only had a 23mm wide angle lens, and could not capture the entire 360-degree rainbow. To my knowledge, no one has captured a photograph of a full NATURAL 360-degree rainbow. You can easily photograph one using a sprinkler, as this photographer has done here.

I challenge all you wunderphotographers to capture a 360-degree rainbow image in rain or waterfall mist. First photographer to post such a natural 360-degree rainbow image wins a free 2-year wunderground.com membership!

Update: In 2013, a photographer on a helicopter in Australia captured a beautiful picture of a 360-degree rainbow, posted at NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website.

Jeff Masters

360-degree rainbow (JeffMasters)
A rainbow is not a half-circle, but a full circle, as this photo taken from NOAA's P-3 Orion weather reseach aircraft demonstrates. A rain shower beneath the aircraft allowed me to see the entire circle of the rainbow, although the 23-mm wide angle lens was not quite wide enough to capture the entire circle.
360-degree rainbow

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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hello!
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Try my recent video of 360 degree rainbows. Shot from my aircraft.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyHqyGEQypQ
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More to rainbows than meets the eye
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if conditions are improving why are we so dry?
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what basin?

Quoting 54. 19N81W:

Maybe in your neck of the woods!
atmosphere around here looks stagnant and pressurized
just a couple small simpsons clouds and haze....
ugggg


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Maybe in your neck of the woods!
atmosphere around here looks stagnant and pressurized
just a couple small simpsons clouds and haze....
ugggg

Quoting 39. islander101010:

spreading like poison ivy..favorable conditions throughout the basin
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terry and i drove into the pot of gold once here in e.cen florida. colors illuminated inside the car! amazing. once in a lifetime
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Well, since I keep on ending up here, I will leave a comment.
Never saw a 360 rainbow in my life! But the pic is cool!
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Dr. Masters first blog entry in 2005 was on the 360 degree rainbow.
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Very interesting on rainbow science. Thanks.
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On mobile and got here by mistake. So glad I did! I had no idea a full circle rainbow could be viewed.
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I like how it is a circle rainbow...great capture

Karen
---------
Printing Services
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As a young merchant seaman many years ago, caught in a sudden tropical downpour in bright sunshine, I'd climbed the ladder to the next deck and looking behind me saw a double rainbow making a complete circle.

It was in the form of a slanted disc with the bottom of the disc at my feet and the top above the horizon (seemingly a long way away).

I realised that the angle of the disc was in a line with the sun behind me passing through my head to the illusion in front of me.

Since that time I know that I have to look for the rainbow with the sun behind me, and that latitude, and the height of the sun above the horizon, determines how high the top of the rainbow appears to be in the sky.
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So who won the photo of a 360 degree rainbow?
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spreading like poison ivy..favorable conditions throughout the basin
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38. Kumo
You should totally get this guy to do commentary on a 360-degree rainbow.
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I had to see where it all started.

wxchaser97 was and is here...
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33. MTWX
Was reading back through the old Katrina Blogs, and figured I'd stop in to see where it all began....

MTWX was here...
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Can we make this the new hangout spot?
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Wow, the first entry... 31 comments in 7 years.
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Quoting CybrTeddy:
Oh this blog has no idea what it's in for..

Yeah...you've got that right, lol.
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TomTaylor was here
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If only one knew where this blog would be now.... Thanks for the original entry Dr. M.
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A different but also exciting phenomena is the "sundog"; in which rays refract through ice crystals. The differing index of refraction of solid water leads to a smaller radius rainbow even without clouds or rain present. Since the radius is tighter, one can often see the full circle. I saw one three days ago in Madison, WI, but I didn't have my camera. Here's an example: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-473524/Dazzling-image-circle-rainbow.html
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Oh this blog has no idea what it's in for..
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hello
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24. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
8:28 PM GMT on July 29, 2008
hello
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23. OneDay
5:55 PM GMT on August 01, 2006
Just thought I'd drop a message on the "original."

Too cool.
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22. turtlehurricane
4:53 AM GMT on July 02, 2006
Flash to the past. Back to the future.
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21. Alec
12:37 AM EDT on June 22, 2006
hey im here!!!!!!!cooooooooool!!!!!!!!
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20. atmosweather
12:33 AM EDT on June 22, 2006
ROFL DONT YOU KNOW THAT UR GONNA BE WRITING ONE EVERYDAY DR MASTERS LOL AHAHAHA!!!!!!!!
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19. Levi32
8:33 PM AKDT on June 21, 2006
Welcom to WU Dr. Master's! ROFL!!!
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17. shaviator
1:46 PM GMT on April 25, 2005
I have seen the "glory" rainbow many times from my plane but have also heard it called "the aviator's halo".
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16. Groundrush
4:30 PM GMT on April 23, 2005
I have seen these before, when I'm skydiving and I steer my parachute into a cloud. I wish I would have had a camera with me!
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15. Lemurian
8:09 PM PDT on April 22, 2005
Jeff says "After all, there is no weather underground." If this is true, then where are we??? LOL
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14. BIGJOHNBOY
11:10 PM GMT on April 22, 2005
COOL RIGHT TIME RIGHT PLACE
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13. stuckindeleware
12:40 PM GMT on April 22, 2005
If a rainbow is a full circle...then WHERE'S THE POT OF GOLD???? I feel cheated.
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12. WunderYakuza (Admin)
4:57 PM PDT on April 21, 2005
You can also create a link to an image by selecting the text you wish to link and clicking the link button above the comment text box. Like so.

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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather