Sand and Stars

The Green Flash

Astronomer Andrew Young captured this striking view of a green flash at Torrey Pines, California, on 7 January 1996.

3 Feb 2019

I loved Jules Verne as a kid – what kid couldn’t be enthralled with the adventures of Nemo, the captain of the Nautilus, the fabulous and futuristic submarine of great dimensions or the adventures of Captain Hatteras in his quest to conquer the North Pole? And as for his The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert) published in 1882… if you watch sunsets in the hope of seeing the elusive green flash, this is the Verne for you! 

The story is about Helena Campbell who is due to be married to a man she dislikes. As a way of putting off the impending marriage, she tells her uncles that she cannot possibly marry until she has seen the the green ray (having read in the Morning Post about the legendary Green Ray’s elevating effects on the mind and soul). 

Her uncles agree and she sets off to Scotland with her two uncles on what becomes a near-epic quest. Joining them in the search are two would-be suitors for Helena, one an artist, the other an amateur scientist. Their attempts are obstructed by clouds, flocks of birds or distant boat sails and when the phenomenon is eventually visible Helena and Oliver Sinclair (the artist), finding love in each other’s eyes, don’t pay attention to the horizon!

After Helena’s near-epic quest to see the elusive green ray, the two lovers missed it! This is the frontpiece of Jules Verne’s 1882 book.

Jules Verne describes the phenomenon as “a green which no artist could ever obtain on his palette, a green of which neither the varied tints of vegetation nor the shades of the most limpid sea could ever produce the like! If there is a green in Paradise, it cannot be but of this shade, which most surely is the true green of Hope”.  

After watching hundreds of sunsets here I saw the green flash and it was every bit as beautiful and exciting to see as I had imagined. I was watching the last bit of Sun lingering on the horizon, with just its barest edge visible and then as the last bit of Sun slipped below the horizon, a thin, emerald-green blob of detached sunlight hung above the horizon for nearly a full second. Just stunning. 

You need three things to see this relatively rare optical phenomenon – the right atmospheric conditions, a distant horizon (and a distinct edge to the horizon), and sheer luck. 

Of the three luck seems to be the defining one… had I blinked I would have missed it.

Copyright © Susan Young 2019