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Green Flash in Santa Cruz, California Image Credit: http://www.webexhibits.org/causesofcolor/13D.html

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Big Sur Green Flash / Le Rayon – by Margariete Malenda

Initially, we weren’t drawn to Big Sur by any sort of folklore or scientific phenomena. Most of us didn’t even know what we were about to witness. Yet we sat in an August sunset along Highway 1 and dumbly watched while drivers sped by –thinking of us a group of rag tag tourist kids. Or maybe for those two seconds they saw it too, and dumbly stared at the Green Flash with us.

The sun barely held on to the sea, and the romance of Jules Verne uncoiled in my head, “…if one were to peer into the light of the green flash, they too, would read the very souls of others.”

But that’s not what fascinates me. What fascinates me is the science behind the folklore. The Green Flash is fractioned light. It bends as does wind, or limbs– yet is bent and then dispersed by the earth’s atmosphere.

The sun’s rays shine fractioned as colored wave lengths from red to violet, as the atmosphere stretches and distorts them via atmospheric dispersion. Rayleigh scattering swallows the blue, indigo, and violet rays, and the ozone absorbs the orange and yellow. For the most part, by the time the sun touches the sea, we’re left with red and green overlapping rays – or more so red and green images of the sun. And as the red sun races to set before the green, we’re left to be graced with the top sliver of a sun that is the Green Flash.

It’s seen on only those precious afternoons with a clear view free of clouds or pollution: a stunningly clear cut view for miles to the horizon’s brink. The ocean is a flat, open and perfect stage for the Green Flash to treat us to its brief act.

It’s only the emerald tip of the quiet sun. It’s no dramatic, sea churning, power gifting miracle. It’s not the sailor’s folklore, or the French poet’s song, or even the skeptics’ denial that left me to sit and wait. Rather, I waited to see it for myself, and to understand what the sailors had not: that all of what I was watching and what I was experiencing, and all of what I am living is in the end science.


An Introduction to Green Flashes. San Diego (CA): San Diego State University. 2012.

I lived a long time in the tropics and often heard of, but never saw, the “green flash” that is said to occur just at sundown. Does it actually exist, and if so, what causes it? New York: Scientific American. October 21, 1997