It’s October 2018, and the deadly specter of Hurricane Michael descends on the state of Florida. Six days later, it fades away, leaving a trail of terror and destruction in its wake. But as the residents begin to rebuild their lives, another powerful phenomenon takes over the heavens. So what is behind the eerie purple skies?
On October 2, 2018, an area of low pressure began gathering in the Caribbean Sea. And within six days, the anomaly had become a hurricane. By October 9, the storm was raging in the Gulf of Mexico. And the next day it arrived on the coast close to Mexico Beach, a city on Florida’s eastern coast.
By this time, the storm – dubbed Hurricane Michael – had reached a Category 4, making it the strongest that the region had ever seen. And over the next six days, it traveled over Florida, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Georgia and North Carolina. It wreaked havoc wherever it went.
By the time that Hurricane Michael dissipated on October 16, people had lost their lives. In fact, within six days, it was estimated that some 54 fatalities had occurred – either as a direct result of the storm or in the resultant flooding that swamped much of Central America.
In total, Hurricane Michael is thought to have caused billions of dollars worth of damage across the United States. And on Florida’s east coast, which bore the full brunt of the storm, homes were destroyed, television and radio stations went off the air and at least 29 people died. Horrifyingly, there are hundreds more missing, whose fate is unknown.
As the hurricane began to ease off over Florida, residents came out of their homes to survey the devastating damage across their communities. But while a heartbreaking sight confronted them, the appearance of a magical phenomenon in the skies over the state lifted the mood of many. Strangely, the clouds had taken on a distinctly purple hue.
Across the state, people took to social media to express their bewilderment at the bizarre sight. “I’ve never seen such a purple sky before,” Shelby Danielson tweeted from Lake City in north central Florida on October 11. And to emphasize her point, she also posted a video of startlingly violet clouds passing overhead.
Also in Lake City, journalist Nick Petrillo tweeted a video showing the same purple skies providing an otherworldly backdrop to an American flag blowing violently in the wind. And on the same day, meteorologist Lauren Rautenkranz from Florida’s First Coast News posted her own footage of a sunrise with an unmistakably purple tint.
Soon, outlets such as Twitter filled up with photographs and videos of the purple skies hanging over Florida – along with plenty of comments appreciating their mysterious beauty. But what exactly was causing this strange phenomenon? On the afternoon of October 11, Rautenkranz tweeted an informative video offering an explanation for the strange sight.
In the video, Rautenkranz suggested that the answer to the purple skies might lie within the countless particles that make up our atmosphere. “As sunlight shines down to Earth, most of the colors of the spectrum are able to reach the surface uninterrupted,” she explained. However, that isn’t the case for blue and violet light.
“The shorter wavelengths, blue and violet, are scattered in every direction,” Rautenkranz continued. “This light bounces from particle to particle until it eventually reaches your eyes. But the sky doesn’t appear violet and blue because of our eye’s limitations. Since violet is the shortest wavelength of the spectrum, our sensitive eyes only detect blue.”
In other words, the violet sky is always there, we just don’t see it. So why did it show itself in such a spectacular fashion in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael? According to Rautenkranz, a combination of factors allied to create the perfect conditions for viewing the normally invisible hue.
Apparently, the high level of saturation in the air combined with dew points upwards of 75 °F, a setting sun and the low, heavy clouds associated with the hurricane meant that observers could see the violet light that normally remains hidden. “The light was scattered around the moisture in the air, causing the magical purple color,” Rautenkranz explained.
The next day, University of Wisconsin Madison professor of meteorology Steven Ackerman went into more detail about the phenomenon known as scattering. Apparently, this process of molecules affecting the behavior of light is what causes dramatic sunrises and sunsets throughout the year.
“Because the sun is low on the horizon, sunlight passes through more air at sunset and sunrise than during the day, when the sun is higher in the sky,” Ackerman explained in an October 2018 interview with Interesting Engineering. “More atmosphere means more molecules to scatter the violet and blue light away from your eyes.”
“If the path is long enough, all of the blue and violet light scatters out of your line of sight,” Ackerman continued. “The other colors continue on their way to your eyes. This is why sunsets are often yellow, orange and red.” In other words, the movement of molecules in the atmosphere – along with other external factors – can affect the colors of light that we see.
So did the strength of Hurricane Michael somehow disrupt the normal behavior of light, allowing observers to see the fantastic violet and lilac colors that had technically been there all along? Although these ideas are just theories, they seem to offer a decent scientific explanation for a phenomenon that boasts a decidedly magical appearance.
Amazingly, it’s not the first time that hurricanes have turned the skies over America a range of purple hues. In fact, just one month earlier, witnesses in North Carolina watched the sky become a vivid violet in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence – a Category 4 storm that resulted in more than 50 fatalities.
However, purple skies have not always been welcomed with appreciation and awe. For example, in February 2018, a mysterious violet light appeared over the Philippines, sparking debate about a potential alien visitation. And although the phenomenon is still unexplained, some believe that it could have been related to the Northern Lights.
Meanwhile, back in Florida, nature’s dramatic ending to the devastating hurricane had not impressed everyone. “Why did everyone put the purple sky on their story,” pondered one Twitter user. “Like I can’t walk outside and look up?” But as the spectacle faded across the state, there are many who will remember its beauty for years to come.