Deriving the Differential Equation for Refraction

There's not much to it. Here's the differential triangle:

differential triangle figure

The element of path length ds along the ray corresponds to the increment dR in distance from the center of the Earth, at C. The local zenith distance at a distance R from the center is z; at R + dR, it's z + dz. But because the local vertical at the latter point has been rotated by dθ (the angle at the center of the Earth, between the two local verticals), the differential of refraction dr is not just dz, but

dr  =  dz + dθ .

so that

dθ  =  dr − dz .

From the little differential triangle, we see that

dR/(R dθ)  =  cot z ,


(R dθ)/dR  =  tan z .

We will shortly need dR/R (see below), so let's rearrange this to give

dR/R  =  dθ/tan z .

Now, the refractive invariant is

nR sin z ,

which is a constant. So we can set its logarithmic differential equal to zero:

dn/n  +  dR/R  +  d(sin z)/(sin z)  =  0 ,


dn/n  +  dR/R  +  (cos z/sin z) dz   =   dn/n  +  dR/R  +  dz/(tan z)  =  0 .

Now plug in the expression found earlier for dR/R, and use the fact that dθ = dr − dz:

dn/n  +  (dr − dz)/(tan z)  +  dz/(tan z)  =  0 ,

or, cancelling the two dz terms,

dn/n  +  dr/(tan z)  =  0 ,

so that

dr  =  −(tan z) dn/n .

(Note that there is a minus sign because n decreases as R increases, going outward from the observer toward space.) This is the most useful form of the refraction differential. It shows how extremely sensitive the refraction is to the local zenith distance: where the ray is horizontal, (tan z) becomes infinite.

If you want to see how the integration is actually carried out, see the integration page, which contains plots of the integrand for several different zenith distances.


Copyright © 2003 – 2006, 2012 Andrew T. Young

Back to the ...
understanding atmospheric refraction page

or the astronomical refraction page

or the GF home page

or the Overview page