HMS Friday: In Search of The Green Ray, Sunset’s Flash of Brilliance

by Mark Lukach


‘The Green Ray,’ exclaimed Oliver Sinclair. ‘Have you already seen it?’ quickly asked the young girl. ‘Have you already seen it?’ The Green Ray, Jules Verne, p. 149

I have never seen the green flash. Yet Andrew Young, who is probably the world’s leading expert on the green flash, claims to see one in every six sunsets. And that’s without the aid of magnification. Throw a pair of binoculars into the mix, and he sees the green flash five out of every six.

The green flash as seen in Santa Cruz, California

The green flash as seen in Santa Cruz, California

Nineteenth Century author Jules Verne called it “The Green Ray” and wrote an entire novel about it. Young, a professor at San Diego State University who has studied the phenomenon for almost twenty years, prefers the term “green flash,” but uses it as a catch all phrase for several different events, including Verne’s “green ray.”

Regardless, the green flash is an enduring, mysterious moment. That’s all it is: a moment that lasts roughly a second or two. In the last seconds of a sunset, under certain circumstances, the vanishing sun’s last impression is a bright display of green, which is rather unexpected given the reds, oranges, and yellows that otherwise characterize the moment.

When I first heard about the green flash, I wasn’t sure what exactly to look for. This is why Andrew Young thinks so many people miss it: they don’t know what they are seeking. The name gives the expectation of a bright, overwhelming burst of green, when in most cases, it’s a tiny patch of light.

The stages of the green flash, observed in San Francisco, CA

The stages of the green flash, observed in San Francisco, CA

Opportunistic business owners have eagerly capitalized on the green flash: there’s the San Diego-based Green Flash Brewing Company and The Green Flash Waterfront Restaurant in Florida, which you don’t want to confuse with The Green Flash restaurant in San Diego, and so on. As much as people love sunsets, they love the idea of the green flash even more.

The science behind the green flash is tricky. Suffice it to say, there are two major forces at play in the green flash: refraction, and mirage. They pertain to light’s bendability, and that certain colors, like red, have shorter wavelengths than the darker colors of green, blue or purple. So as the sun sets, the faster moving colors disappear first, and the slower-moving colors stick around longer. That’s the refraction part. You need a particular coinciding mirage in order to create the green flash. It’s complicated – which is maybe why it’s so hard to see it.

This is just a tiny portion of the science behind the green flash. This graph explains how a mirage would appear if standing 5km away from the setting sun.

This is just a sampling of the science behind the green flash. This graph explains how a mirage would appear if standing 5km away from the setting sun.

The green flash is unquestionably associated with the ocean for good reason. In order to see it, you need an uninterrupted view of the horizon. In the industrial age, and now the age of flight, observers have discovered that you can also see the green flash from high elevations. In fact, pilots who fly westward at sunset have experienced some of the longest green flashes, as they are chasing the westward movements of the sun, thus prolonging the sunset itself.

If you want to learn more about the green flash, Andrew Young has created the most comprehensive source available on the internet. I contacted Young for an interview, but he declined, explaining that he prefers to stay out of the spotlight and let his work speak for itself. Which is too bad. He epitomizes the fanatical passion and curiosity that we so much love at The Scuttlefish. Still, his enigmatic work surely merits a story. Not only has Young redefined the science of the green flash, he has also meticulously recorded all of its discussion and occurrences throughout history, with  a 700+ page bibliography of any and all references to green flashes and mirages, dating all the way back to the time of Aristotle. He even dedicates a section dedicated to unsolved mysteries about the green flash. No one knows, for example, where Jules Verne learned of the flash. It’s seems possible, but is not at all clear, whether the flash is represented in Egyptian hieroglyphics. And an observation made by the Duchess of Bedford seems to have two durations – depending on where her description was printed.

While Andrew Young might be the green flash’s preeminent scholar, Jules Verne is its preeminent mythologist. Verne is most famous for novels like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days, but he also wrote countless novels that have been largely forgotten, including 1883’s The Green Ray.

You’d imagine that the green flash has been observed by countless sailors and coastal peoples for thousands of years, and in digging into ‘flash lore,’ I expected that legends and myths would abound. But actually, there doesn’t seem to be much mythology around the flash. In fact, Jules Verne had to invent his own legend.

Verne imagined that the Scots believe that if you witness the green flash, you are given the power to read another person’s thoughts. There is no such Scottish myth, but Verne built a love story around it anyway. His protagonist, a young woman named Helena, wants to know if her suitor truly loves her.  So of course she hears about the Scottish myth, and Verne’s plot thus becomes apparent: Helena sets out to observe the green flash, so she’ll be granted the power to test her suitor’s love.

The green flash, with several layers of mirage, in Finland.

The green flash, with several layers of mirage, in Finland.

Have you sometimes observed the sun set over the sea? -The Green Ray, p. 32

When I lived  on the coast in San Francisco, I’d often walk my dog at sunset. Over the years, the ocean-born sunsets accumulated well into the hundreds, and somehow even jaw-dropping sunsets became commonplace. Oftentimes the otherwise underused beach would fill up with tourists when sunset  approached, folks  who had schlepped across town specifically for that moment. They’d get out of their cars, shiver in the cold of the wind, killing time however they saw fit. But life stopped as soon as the bottom curve of the sun first touched the horizon. From then on, it was silent appreciation. Often, when it was all over, people would burst into applause.

But not me and my dog. We shuffled along on our way. In fact, I took to watching the watchers, looking east at the people rather than west into the sun.

The green flash in San Diego.

The green flash in San Diego.

Very likely you have [observed the sun set over the sea]; but did you notice the phenomenon which occurs at the very instant the heavenly body sends forth its last ray, which if the sky be cloudless, is of unparalleled purity? -The Green Ray, p. 32

Granted, I’ve never seen, or at least never noticed the green flash, but surely I appreciate its romantic appeal: fleeting, fantastic, beautiful. Yet the more I think about it, the more I believe that while Helena believed the flash could give her the power to know love, in reality, the flash is the opposite of love. The green flash is mystery and science fused into one, a complex bending of light and illusion. Love is also these things. But the green flash is a chance encounter, an elusive and unpredictable spark, and it is gone before you can even appreciate what it was in the first place. It is out of your control. This is not love. Love may start with a spark – or a flash –  but it settles into a steady hum that needs time, patience and constant monitoring in order to stay alive.

The first time you have the opportunity, and it happens but rarely, of making this observation, it will not be, as one might think, a crimson ray which falls upon the retina of the eye, it will be green, but a most wonderful green, a green which no artist could ever obtain on his palette, a green which neither the varied tints of vegetation nor the shades of the most limpid sea could ever produce the like! If there be green in Paradise, it cannot but be of this shade, which most surely is the true green of Hope! -The Green Ray, p. 33

Verne’s novel ends, as you’d expect, with a green flash. Helena is there. Yet as the sun sets and the green light finally bursts from the horizon, Helena isn’t looking to the sky. She is instead looking at her Oliver. The pair had pursued the green flash together, bumbling through one dangerous adventure after the next, with Oliver becoming Helena’s savior, and they had become close through the endeavor. And wouldn’t you know it, the instant that the green flash appears, they’re instead gazing at each other, discovering love.

Maybe that’s why I tended to watch the watchers at sunset. I might see the green flash for an instant but I won’t see love or truth, just the beautiful dance of light.

The stages of the green flash, in San Francisco

The stages of the green flash, in San Francisco

I prefer love, I reckon Verne did too.

‘But after all, my dear Helena,’ said Oliver, ‘we never saw that ray, much as we wished to.’ ‘We have seen something better still!’ quietly replied his young wife. ‘We have seen the happiness which the legend attached to the observation of that phenomenon! And since we have found it, my dear Oliver, let us be contented, and leave to those who have never yet known it, the search for the Green Ray!’ -The Green Ray, p. 312

Sources All italicized text in this post comes from The Green Ray, written by Jules Verne and published in 1883. It is available, in its entirety, on Google Books. Seriously, go to Andrew Young’s website. Every other green flash website links back to this one. It is the authoritative source for info about the green flash.

Images The wikipedia article on the green flash has several great images The book cover is from The surf shot is from The Finland shot is from The graph is from Andrew Young’s website

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