What to make of rainbow loss

Judy Garland may have sweetly elevated rainbows to technicolour cliche, but they’ve always been happy, shiny wonders–ever since the sun’s rays met air-borne water droplets and there were sentient beings around to take notice. Now they figure in myths, superstitions, beliefs and symbolic declarations the world over.

Marvelling at a rainbow’s beauty is a moment that’s different for everyone. But, regardless of how infrequent or fleeting, how meaningful or inconsequential rainbows might be to you, if you’ve grown up seeing them, then you could be fairly certain of seeing another one at some point in your future.

Until now.

Rainbow over Big Bay, Ontario
I captured this rainbow with my cellphone as it glowed through a grey mist over Big Bay, not far from our cottage on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada.


Climate change is slowly but surely changing precipitation levels and cloud cover distribution the world over. No surprise there. But, in a scholarly paper entitled GLOBAL RAINBOW DISTRIBUTION UNDER CURRENT AND FUTURE CLIMATES, a group of researchers and scientists reported that, as a result, global rainbow distribution and occurrence is changing, too.

Yup, rainbows are disappearing–not everywhere but in a significant portion of the world.


The bad news first: huge swaths of the world are starting to experience rainbow loss. Most of these places are around the middle of the globe (the equator) and places of major air pollution.

The good news is that there will be rainbow hotspots of increased occurrence. These places have three important characteristics:

  1. high latitude
  2. high elevation
  3. relatively smaller human populations

I have to admit I had to look up where in the world a high latitude area might be. There are two areas: one blanketing the north pole and surrounding area and the other the south pole. So, Iceland, Scandinavia, Alaska, the northern parts of Canada, Asia and Russia, as well as, on the flip side of the globe, southernmost Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica are all high latitude places.

The “smaller human populations” attribute is really all about places where there is less human-made pollution. Densely populated areas are projected to be “hotspots of rainbow loss”.


Do we care? I was floored when I discovered this paper. I mean, besides trying to comprehend rainbow loss, my other thoughts (skeptic that I am) circled around questions like who does a very serious scientific study of rainbow occurrence anyway. And why?

Actually, the ‘who’ is a substantial team of experts from universities all over the U.S., with a majority of them based in Hawaii. [Sidenote: I can totally see rainbows being top of mind if you lived on a spectacular island completely surrounded by an all-encompassing sky.]

The impact of climate change on our lives and the environment is a part of the ‘why’. After all, rainbows are “an atmospheric optical phenomenon that results from the refraction of sunlight by rainwater droplets” and are, as such, important indicators of precipitation and cloud cover. But, poignantly, the paper’s authors make a big point (actually, a lot of big points) about how rainbows impact us, as human beings, in non-tangible ways, such as our well-being and how they’re an inspiring connection to nature.

Our results underscore the fact that climate change will alter not just tangible earth system dynamics with clear socio-economic implications, but also parts of the earth system that we cannot touch, and that may affect us in more subtle ways. 


The hopes and promises found “somewhere over the rainbow” that Judy Garland’s Dorothy sings about are frustratingly elusive but, at the end of the day, they’re about a place where “troubles melt like lemon drops.” How will an increasingly rare rainbow sighting impact our hopes in the future?

The authors point out that less-frequent rainbow sightings might change how we value rainbows. Rainbows are a bridge between us and nature. If there are less of them, will we (especially, perhaps, future generations) think less of nature?

I’d love to know how you interpret rainbows and your reactions to the notion that your future may not include rainbows. For me, personally, I can’t help but feel sad. But I also feel re-committed to doing what I can to help stop or at least slow down climate change. I want the rainbows in my future to be more than a symbol of hope and promise. Why can’t they also be a symbol of promises kept?

FOOTNOTE: For a quick but fascinating read on how rainbows figure in most of the world’s major religions and plenty of cultures, check out the BBC’s Rainbows As Signs Of Thank You, Hope and Solidarity.

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