GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As a blazing bolt of lightning streaks across the sky it can illuminate the landscape with some dazzling colors. Some strikes are blue, while others take on a ruddy brown tint. A bolt can be purple to pink to stunningly white. So what causes lightning to look a certain color?
The answer lies in how close lightning strikes, and how that light is distorted before it hits the viewer’s eye.
Anything floating in the air will scatter light. Lightning is white light, meaning is contains the entire visible spectrum. When a bolt strikes, particles in the atmosphere around it will begin to scatter light and change the color of the flash.
This means bolts that strike close to a viewer often appear bright white, because there are fewer particles to get in the way of the display and distort the color.
Lightning that flashes far away is more likely to take on a tint, because the white light is scattered as it travels through layers of dust, water vapor or haze.
It’s also possible the composition of the air can have an effect on how the lightning will flash. For example, oxygen and nitrogen molecules are so tiny that they tend to scatter short-frequency wavelength that light the best, giving off a blue or purple tint.
Some studies have also explored the temperature of a lightning bolt, and it’s impact on color. Lightning typically registers at a sizzling 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. There is also some claims that as a lightning bolt ionizes the air, it can appear blue.
It can be difficult to catch the true nature of the thunderbolt on camera. Cameras will often distort the true appearance of a flash or strike. Some photography blogs, like Storm Highway, note how lightning caught on slide film versus print film can look different — with print film giving lightning more of a brownish tint.
Perhaps the strangest colors reported are instances of pink or green lightning seen during snowstorms. The phenomenon, known as”thundersnow”, is rare. The unique sky color is caused as snowflakes refract and reflect the white bolt in a unique way.