The Azure Skies of Autumn

Autumn is well known as the time of year when leaves change color. However, have you ever noticed the sky also changes shades with the season?

In general, we see the sky as blue because of Rayleigh scattering. This is a phenomenon where the molecules of nitrogen and oxygen that make up most of Earth’s atmosphere scatter the incoming light radiation from the sun. More to the point, they are most effective at scattering light with short wavelengths, such as those on the blue end of the visual spectrum. This allows blue light to reach our eyes from all directions and dictates the color we understand the sky to be.

The arc height of the sun’s apparent daily passage across our sky, which varies with the seasons, determines how much of the atmosphere the incoming light must pass through. This, in turn, affects how much scattering takes place. Simply put, the more Rayleigh scattering, the bluer the sky appears.

That said, humidity levels also play a role. Water vapor and water droplets are significantly larger than nitrogen and oxygen molecules, and therefore scatter light differently. Instead of sending light in all directions, they project it forward. This is known as Mie scattering and tends to create a milky white or hazy appearance in the sky.

During the summer months, when the sun is higher in the sky, light does not have to travel that far through the atmosphere to reach our eyes. Consequently, there is less Rayleigh scattering. The warm temperatures of summer also mean the air can hold more moisture, increasing the effect of Mie scattering. As a result, the summer sky tends to be a relatively muted or pale blue.

In autumn, the sun sits lower on the horizon, increasing the amount of Rayleigh scattering. The season’s cooler temperatures also decrease the amount of moisture the air can hold, diminishing the degree of Mie scattering. Taken together, these two factors produce deep blue skies.

When this azure hue is contrasted with the reds and yellows of the season’s famous foliage, all of the colors look even more vibrant.

Photo credit: Azure-Lorica Foundation

Yellow leaves pop against a deep blue autumn sky. Photo credit: Azure-Lorica Foundation

The Blue Haze of the Great Smoky Mountains

Traveling in North Carolina and Tennessee recently, I had the opportunity to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While renowned for its “wondrous biodiversity”, the park’s name is derived from a localized atmospheric phenomenon.

The Cherokee, who originally inhabited the area, called the mountains, “Shaconage”, meaning “place of the blue smoke”. It refers to the smoke-like bluish haze that hovers over the park’s rugged peaks and valleys, especially after a rainstorm. According to the NPS, it is a natural by-product of plant transpiration.

While all trees and plants exhale water vapor, the conifer trees in the park also emit terpenes – a naturally occurring organic compound. Released in large quantities, the mix of terpenes and moisture react with natural low level ozone molecules to form tiny particles that scatter blue light. As a result, the mountains appear to be bathed in a gauzy blue mist.

In recent years, according to the NPS, human-made air pollution has been obscuring the Smokies’ signature blue haze.

View of blue haze in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Image Credit: NPS

View of the bluish- haze in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Image Credit: NPS