Curiosities: Why does the sky turn green before a tornado?

August 24, 2007

Scott Bachmeier, a research meteorologist at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at UW–Madison, says that particles in the air scatter light. In the day, the particles scatter more violet and blue light, but our eyes are more sensitive to blue light — that’s why the sky appears blue.

Thunderstorms, which can be the home of tornadoes, usually happen later in the day, when the sun is approaching the horizon. That creates a reddish tinge in the sky, as any fan of sunsets knows. But light under a 12-mile high thundercloud is primarily blue, due to scattering by water droplets within the cloud. When blue objects are illuminated with red light, Bachmeier says, they appear green.

Green is significant, but not proof that a tornado is on the way. A green cloud “will only occur if the cloud is very deep, which generally only occurs in thunderstorm clouds,” Bachmeier says. “Those are the kind of storms that may produce hail and tornadoes.” Green does indicate that the cloud is extremely tall, and since thunderclouds are the tallest clouds, green is a warning sign that large hail or a tornado may be present.

If this explanation is confusing, Bachmeier offers some alternative folk wisdom for the color change: that tornadoes sucked frogs and grasshoppers into the sky.