That Quadruple Rainbow You’ve Been Freaking Out About Is Not Really A Quadruple Rainbow

Sorry to harsh your mellow, Internet.

That Quadruple Rainbow You’ve Been Freaking Out About Is Not Really A Quadruple Rainbow
[Photo: Flickr user Cessna 206]

Many of us will never forget the joyous, tear-filled occasion when Paul “Bear” Vasquez set his eyes upon an elusive double rainbow:


So it’s no surprise the Internet would collectively freak out over the reported QUADRUPLE rainbow Amanda Curtis of Long Island, New York, and CEO of fashion-y Nineteenth Amendment, tweeted out.

The only problem? It’s a fake.

Curtis set off a firestorm of retweets and blogs over the image below:

Beautiful, yes. A quadruple rainbow, not exactly. According to Raymond Lee, a research professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, what we’re really looking here are “sunlight-reflection” rainbows.

“These rainbows can form when sunlight is reflected from a water surface behind or in front of the viewer, with the result that the sun’s reflected virtual image forms a second light source which appears as far below the horizon as the sun’s real image is above it,” Lee wrote in an email. “A map of the Glen Cove, NY LIRR station shows that Curtis had a great location with Hempstead Bay to the [northwest], nearly opposite the morning sun.”

Lee, who has studied rainbows extensively, verified the first legit quadruple rainbow back in 2011. And as you can see, it looks nothing like Curtis’s photo:

Photo: Michael Theusner, Applied Optics

This is not to suggest that Curtis was intentionally fooling anyone. Part of the problem, as Lee points out, is the term “quadruple rainbow.”

Lee distinguishes the difference between a true quaternary rainbow (“sunlight that’s been reflected four times inside each raindrop and which appears around the sun and [approximately] 44° from it”) and the sunlight-reflection Curtis snapped that is formed by two reflections within each raindrop with the sun’s reflected image as the light source.

“Because [this] optical process can make visible as many as two primary rainbows and two secondary rainbows opposite the sun (with one pair slightly offset in elevation from the other), the label ‘quadruple’ understandably gets used,” Lee says. “However, the unusual sunlight-reflection rainbows are entirely different rainbow phenomena from (and appear on the opposite side of the sky from) the extraordinarily rare tertiary and quaternary rainbows.”

Got that?

Still, whatever science says, we can all agree about one thing: Curtis’s viral photo is breathtakingly beautiful.

Watch me go “Inside A Quadruple Rainbow Investigation”


About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.