Posted by: Anna Webb | February 21, 2010

Rainbows, Moonbows and Red Road: Repost

(Note to readers: I am updating this post with link to a great moonbow photo. (link below) They are few and far between due to the difficulty of photographing them at night-time.)

Early morning rainbow, Seaview Estates

Hawai’i is undisputedly the “Land of Rainbows”. Weather conditions, rain followed by intense sunshine, are perfect here to produce these glorious early morning and late afternoon displays of arched color.

A rainbow, scientifically explained, is a spectrum of light formed when the Sun’s rays shine onto water droplets in the Earth’s atmosphere. The result is an arc of intense color of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet can be clearly seen in this close up rainbow photo
Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet can be clearly seen in this close up rainbow photo

Why is it always in the shape of an arc? It’s because the Earth’s atmosphere is curved. While rain is the most common form of water forming a rainbow, a light mist can also produce the same result. To me, the most interesting aspect of a rainbow is that it doesn’t exist in any particular location. It is the position of the observer in respect to the Sun’s location that makes it visible. Think about that for a minute. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. Non-scientifically speaking, that’s what makes seeing them so special.

Notice the reverse color order of the double rainbow
Notice the reverse color order of the double rainbow

When relocating from the Hawaiian Acres area of Hawai’i’s east side down to the southeast coast area two years ago, it was possible that our new “digs” may not be situated as well to see rainbows. “No worries” as we say here, because we now are privileged to see even more displays of this meteorological phenomenon. Many times a late afternoon rain will pass by over the ocean and not even reach land resulting in a grand color show.

There are many myths in various cultures regarding rainbows. The earliest documentation of the rainbow myth dates back to approximately 3,000 BC to the Sumerian culture. Whether Sumerian, Greek, Aboriginal, Japanese or Judao-Christian these myths have a connected theme of being quite special in nature. The Hawaiian myth is called “The Rainbow Maiden”, a dramatic story about a maiden who could be seen playing wherever the sun or moon touched the misty rain.

An intense "chunk" of rainbow over the ocean
An intense “chunk” of rainbow over the ocean

If you want to “catch a rainbow” whether you are a resident or a visitor just remember the timeframes and conditions conducive to rainbow formations. In the morning, between the hours of 7am and 9am, and in the afternoon, from 3pm to 5pm, listen and watch for passing rain. If the Sun emerges from the clouds right afterward, step outside and look in the area opposite of where the Sun is located in the sky. You are likely to see a rainbow form. We have taken more than 5,000 photos of rainbows since we moved to Hawai’i’s Big Island four years ago!

Sadly, I can report that I did not find a “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow for I have seen the end of the rainbow in my own backyard. It’s my opinion that the “pot of gold” refers to the special feeling that washes over you when you actually see the end of the rainbow or better yet, when you have the opportunity to stand within the end of the rainbow. Although, I suppose it could have been at the other end…


An equally fascinating phenomenon is the moonbow also known as a lunar rainbow. This takes place when full moonlight shines on atmospheric moisture. It’s colors are muted and if witnessed later at night a moonbow will appear white. I’d heard descriptions of it but confused it with the rings seen around the moon itself caused by ice in the atmosphere. However, a true moonbow is shaped just like a full arc daytime rainbow only it appears at night. I’ve seen moonbows twice since living at the coast, both last year.

In January 2008 I was returning from Pahoa around 8:30pm. I had seen the full moon popping in and out of the clouds to my left as I made my way toward the coast. As I rounded the curve at about the 19 mile marker, just before the Painted Church, I looked over toward the pali to the right and had to pull over and jump out of the car. I couldn’t believe my eyes! There was a full arc moonbow in all it’s glory right over Kalapana. It feels as special as it sounds; it’s as if nature says, “Experience this and chalk it up as a special memory”. It’s so true because your cell phone photos will certainly display a disappointing black square. I have to admit I wept and was extremely grateful to have witnessed it in my lifetime.

Last June, on the Summer Solstice, one also appeared over the backyard. Walking out the backdoor to see a friend out to her car just before 10pm, it was simply shining like an upside down smile!

To catch a moonbow in Hawai’i be mindful that it needs to be a full moon combined with a passing rain. 8pm to 10pm seems to be the best time to spot one. If you hear a passing rain and the full moon emerges from the clouds go outside and look in the opposite direction from the location of the moon in the sky. It’s well worth your patience to try to catch sight of one.

UPDATE: Friday 9/4/09

Awesome! Caught a moonbow. Same conditions described above, went outside and sure enough there was a full arc moonbow in the backyard. I so wish the photos would turn out!


Great photo of moonbow on this website entitled “Moonbow over Venus”:


  1. If you want to see moonbows, just drive Saddle Road any time there is a bright and low Moon in the sky. They are common occurrences where you enter or emerge from the low altitude clouds and fog at 5-6kft in the Saddle.

    Any time the trades are blowing and there is a bright Moon low in the western sky, you also get them around Waimea. Try Mamalohoa highway just south of town past the airport.

    I drive both of these regularly, and have seen so many moonbows they have ceased to be unusual in my life.


  3. Thanks for the comment, Andrew. Awesome info.

  4. Anna – regarding the rainbow “chunk” picture. Was this taken recently, as in the last couple of weeks?

    I was stuck at the Keaau bypass bottleneck the week before last (around 5pm) and noticed off to my left (east) a very bright chunk of rainbow but nothing else. It looked very much like your picture although a little more intense. Just curious if it was the same thing you pictured!

    I can’t remember the actual day although it was during the work week – probably 8-11th Feb.

    Nice pictures by the way!

    All the best,

  5. Hi Tom,
    No, these were all taken last year. But I think I saw the same chunk you’re talking about. I was coming back from Hilo.
    I’ve missed the rainbows during this drought. They’ll be back regularly soon 🙂

  6. Thanks, Anna. Let’s hope El Nino starts to lose its grip soon and we can get back to some more typical showery weather this spring – and the rainbows!



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