On really cold winter days at temperatures well below zero, I’ve noticed that sunlight is brighter and whiter than on days that are a little below freezing. Why does this happen? — CP, Madison, WI
The colder the air is, the less humidity it can hold. That’s because at low temperature, water molecules in the air are much more likely to land on a surface and stick than they are to break free from a surface and enter the air. Thus cold air is relatively free of water molecules. Water molecules in the air tend to bind together briefly and form tiny particles that scatter light. The sky is blue because of such scattering from tiny particles. With less water in the air, there is less scattering of sunlight. As a result, the sky is a darker blue, almost black, and the sunlight that reaches you directly from the sun retains a larger fraction of its blue light. The sun appears less red and more blue-white than on a warmer, more humid day.