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What are moonbows?

Moonbows or lunar rainbows are rare natural atmospheric phenomena that occur when the Moon’s light is reflected and refracted off water droplets in the air.

Illustration image
Faint moonbow seen over Yosemite Falls
©iStockphoto.com/Yenwen Lu

Moonbows are similar to rainbows, but they are created by moonlight instead of direct sunlight.

Rarer than rainbows

Moonbows are rarer than rainbows because a variety of weather and astronomical conditions have to be just right for them to be created. First, the Moon has to be very low in the sky – no more than 42 degrees from the horizon. Second, the Moon has to be a full or a near full Moon. Third, the sky must be very dark for a moonbow to be observed – any bright light can obscure it. And finally, water droplets must be present in the air in the opposite direction of the moon.

Moonbows occur on the opposite side of the Moon and tend to look white to the human eye. This is because their colors are not bright enough to be perceived by the receptors in the human eye. It is possible, however, to view the colors in a moonbow using long exposure photography.


Moonbows are more frequent in some locations around the world. Most of these locations tend to have waterfalls, which create layers of mist in the air. Some of these locations are the Yosemite National Park in California and Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Kentucky, U.S.; Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe; and Waimea in Hawaii, U.S.

Topics: Astronomy, Moon, Atmospheric Phenomena


All about the Moon

  1. Moonphases worldwide
  2. Phases of the Moon
  3. What is a Supermoon?
  4. Micro Moon versus Supermoon
  5. Is a Blue Moon blue?
  6. The Moon's orbit
  7. What is a Black Moon?
  8. What are Moonbows?
  9. Full Moon names

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