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In some parts of the United States, it's said that a green sky means there's a tornado on the way. But while you should probably go inside, things might not necessarily get so bad"



Hosted by: Michael Aranda

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Sources:

https://shareok.org/bitstream/handle/11244/5519/9806312.PDF?sequence=1 [PDF]
https://news.wisc.edu/curiosities-why-does-the-sky-turn-green-before-a-tornado-2/
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-if-sky-is-green-run-for-cover-tornado-is-coming/
http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/BlueSky/blue_sky.html
https://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/color1.html
https://www.livescience.com/39069-why-are-rain-clouds-dark.html
http://www1.lsbu.ac.uk/water/water_vibrational_spectrum.html
https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/full/10.1175/1520-0450-39.10.1754
https://s.campbellsci.com/documents/ca/technical-papers/obs_light_absorption.pdf
[Intro]

In areas like the central United States that get lots of tornadoes, there's a common piece of celestial fortune-telling. People say that green skies mean a tornado is on its way. Research has show that it isn't quite as simple as that, but scientists have found that if you see a green sky, you should probably go inside.

As far as most scientists can tell, the green skies around powerful thunderstorms are usually a combination of red sunsets and water droplets. Like we've talked about before, daytime skies are blue because bluer, shorter wavelengths of visible light tends to bounce off air molecules better than redder, longer wavelength light. So, the blue light gets bounced all over the sky. So, the blue light gets bounced all over the sky, and looks like it's coming from everywhere. Meanwhile, around sunset, sunlight travels through so much atmosphere that just about all the blue is bounced away from the horizon, leaving all those picturesque reds and oranges behind.

But, that quick summary hides something important: sunsets might look exclusively red and orange, but there's still some green and even blue light hidden in there, just far less than the other colors. But, for us to notice the residual green light, it needs to hit something that reflects green light much better than red. And, that's where water comes in.

Big, tall, threatening storm clouds are made of water droplets. And even though water is best at reflecting blue light, it can reflect green pretty well- much better than reds and oranges. So, under just the right conditions, the water in and around a cloud can bounce the green light hidden in a sunset right into our eyes, making the sky look green.

This explains why most of these eerie skies are reported late in the day, when there's not much blue light around to dominate. Of course, green skies can happen in the middle of the day, too. Enough blue light just had to get bounced elsewhere by the right combination of air molecules above the clouds and the water within them.

Still, none of the conditions that can turn skies green are unique to the clouds that spawn tornadoes. They're often associated with these twisters, because the intense storms that produce green tinted skies can also produce tornadoes. But, they don't always. Sometimes, they just lead to lots of rain, and maybe some hail.

So, if you see huge storm clouds rolling in and a green tint in the sky, it doesn't necessarily mean there's about to be a tornado, but it does mean you should probably head indoors.

Thanks for asking, and thanks to all of our patrons on Patreon, who help us keep answering questions like this. If you'd like to support the show or ask a question of your own, you can go to Patreon.com/SciShow.

[Outro]