The American Practical Navigator
3421. The Green Flash
As light from the Sun passes through the atmosphere, it is refracted. Since the amount of bending is slightly different for each color, separate images of the Sun are formed in each color of the spectrum. The effect is similar to that of imperfect color printing, in which the various colors are slightly out of register. However, the difference is so slight that the effect is not usually noticeable. At the horizon, where refraction is maximum, the greatest difference, which occurs between violet at one end of the spectrum and red at the other, is about 10 seconds of arc. At latitudes of the United States, about 0.7 second of time is needed for the Sun to change altitude by this amount when it is near the horizon.
The red image, being bent least by refraction, is first to set and last to rise. The shorter wave blue and violet colors are scattered most by the atmosphere, giving it its characteristic blue color. Thus, as the Sun sets, the green image may be the last of the colored images to drop out of sight. If the red, orange, and yellow images are below the horizon, and the blue and violet light is scattered and absorbed, the upper rim of the green image is the only part seen, and the Sun appears green. This is the green flash. The shade of green varies, and occasionally the blue image is seen, either separately or following the green flash (at sunset). On rare occasions the violet image is also seen. These colors may also be seen at sunrise, but in reverse order. They are occasionally seen when the Sun disappears behind a cloud or other obstruction.
The phenomenon is not observed at each sunrise or sunset, but under suitable conditions is far more common than generally supposed. Conditions favorable to observation of the green flash are a sharp horizon, clear atmosphere, a temperature inversion, and a very attentive observer. Since these conditions are more frequently met when the horizon is formed by the sea than by land, the phenomenon is more common at sea. With a sharp sea horizon and clear atmosphere, an attentive observer may see the green flash at as many as 50 percent of sunsets and sunrises, although a telescope may be needed for some of the observations.
Duration of the green flash (including the time of blue and violet flashes) of as long as 10 seconds has been reported, but such length is rare. Usually it lasts for a period of about 1/2 to 21/2 seconds, with about 11/4 seconds being average. This variability is probably due primarily to changes in the index of refraction of the air near the horizon. Under favorable conditions, a momentary green flash has been observed at the setting of Venus and Jupiter. A telescope improves the chances of seeing such a flash from a planet, but is not a necessity.