The science behind why Santa needed Rudolph’s red glow

Science may explain why Rudolph’s red nose was so important for Santa to navigate safely in reduced visibility caused by fog, rain or snow.

Sjo/Getty Images

We’re all familiar with Rudolph’s red glow, and for this weekend of rain and fog, his nose will steal the show. But did you know that science can explain why Rudolph’s red nose was so important for Santa to navigate safely in reduced visibility caused by fog, rain or snow?

Before we dive into the familiar history and science behind Santa’s beloved reindeer, let’s discuss the rain that awaits us this holiday weekend.

Saturday

Saturday will be an unusually wet day by late December standards, with patchy fog before 7am and a chance of scattered showers most of the day. If you’re making last-minute preparations before Christmas Eve or hitting the roads, rain by Saturday afternoon will generally be lighter, although pockets of heavier rain along and west of Interstate 45 can’t be ruled out.

Advertising

Article continues below this announcement

US and European weather models agree that heavier rain won’t arrive in the Houston area until probably after 4pm on Saturday, when the chance of rain jumps to 70% to 80% with one-tenth to one-quarter rainfall amounts of inches are possible.

Temperatures could reach 71 degrees by afternoon, but remain above 63 degrees overnight, amid gusty southeast winds of 15 to 20 mph.

The European Weather Model's image of what future radar could look like early Sunday morning shows heavy rain, especially earlier in the day.  Showers and scattered storms will be possible until a cold front moves across Southeast Texas Sunday night.

The European Weather Model’s image of what future radar could look like early Sunday morning shows heavy rain, especially earlier in the day. Showers and scattered storms will be possible until a cold front moves across Southeast Texas Sunday night.

Key time

Christmas Eve

Our next cold front will cause quite a stir as it approaches Southeast Texas late Saturday into Sunday. Ahead of the front, strong southeasterly winds will bring abundant moisture. With a big lift in the atmosphere thanks to an approaching cold front, widespread rain is expected on Sunday.

Advertising

Article continues below this announcement

Models tend to show the heaviest rain while many of us are sleeping in the pre-dawn hours on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the day will be dry.

Showers and possibly a thunderstorm are almost certain throughout Sunday with temperatures reaching around 71 degrees. Cool southeast winds 10 to 20 mph, with gusts as high as 30 mph.

Scattered showers are likely through the afternoon of Christmas Eve before a cold front sweeps across the region, bringing drier air and ending rain chances.

When exactly will this cold front pass? Will it start to rain east of Houston before Santa and his magical herd of reindeer fly across the wide open skies of the Lone Star? Of course, things can certainly change, but based on the latest forecast data, it looks like weather conditions will improve for Santa’s annual race through the sky.

Advertising

Article continues below this announcement

Why Rudolph’s red nose was useful

A reindeer named Holly prepares to meet children at Northwest Hills United Methodist Church.  Holly is one of four reindeer from Zoomagination, a nonprofit organization in Atascosa.

A reindeer named Holly prepares to meet children at Northwest Hills United Methodist Church. Holly is one of four reindeer from Zoomagination, a nonprofit organization in Atascosa.

Billy Kalsada /Staff Photographer

We are all familiar with the story of Rudolph, right? As a young reindeer Rudolph was laughed at and called abusive words. He wasn’t even allowed to play reindeer games. But one foggy Christmas Eve, the jolly man in red himself asked Rudolph, whose nose was so bright, to steer his sleigh.

Rudolph’s red nose allowed for safe travel in dangerous sky conditions such as fog, rain or snow. Rudolph soon became quite the popular reindeer, winning the love and adoration of the other reindeer, whose back stories don’t matter so much here.

To understand why Rudolph’s red nose was such an asset, you need to understand how reindeer vision works. According to a 2015 paper from Dartmouth University, arctic reindeer have a distinct advantage during the winter months when the sun is at a lower angle because they can see ultraviolet light.

Advertising

Article continues below this announcement

In addition, the reflective tissue in reindeer eyes, which is similar to the reflective tissue in the eyes of cats and dogs, undergoes changes over the course of a year. During the summer months, the reflective tissue in the Arctic reindeer’s eyes takes on a rich golden hue. This changes to a deep blue color during the cold winter months, a trait that helps them see better in winter when scattered light from the atmosphere takes on a blue hue. Here’s the problem: Blue light is almost impossible to see in foggy conditions.

This is where Rudolph’s red nose comes into play. Red light has the strongest and longest wavelength, while blue and violet light have much shorter wavelengths that can easily be obscured by fog or falling snow. The red light’s ability to shine through thick fog and other weather hazards makes it ideal for guiding Santa’s sleigh.

Christmas and beyond

Santa probably won’t need Rudolph leading his sleigh through fog this year, especially since a cold front is expected to clear Southeast Texas by Christmas. A northwesterly wind will bring drier and slightly cooler air for Christmas, with morning clouds expected to give way to sunshine by the afternoon.

Since the air mass behind the cold front is not truly arctic, the temperature drop will not be drastic. Christmas Day highs will generally reach the lower 60s north of Houston to the mid 60s in and around Houston. After the sun goes down, it should get chilly as lows gradually settle into the 40s by early Tuesday morning.

Advertising

Article continues below this announcement

This might be the time to introduce the new coat Santa brought you this year. Slightly cooler air arrives in the region by midweek, with forecast highs Tuesday and Wednesday near 60 degrees.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *