James WX Blog: The red of sunrise, but why though?


Rochester and along Lake Ontario get some amazing sunrises and sunsets. Having a body of water nearby really helps with those. You may also notice if you’ve lived pretty much anywhere else, you’ll hear “My location ‘X’ has the best sunrise/sunsets.” Isn’t that funny that every place has great sunrise/sunsets?

Well it just so happens that they’re all beautiful and we’re lucky enough to enjoy them. It’s a simple explanation when you learn it, but from far away can be a bit confusing. Here’s my sunrise/sunset 101.

The sun emits all different kinds of radiation, one of those being light radiation — basically the kind we can see with the naked eye. It emits all colors. When those are all mixed together, you get white. That’s what the sun looks like to us. P.S.A DON’T LOOK AT THE SUN. Those other wavelengths of radiation can do permanent damage. 

Secondly, we live in an atmosphere. Crazy, right? There are molecules in the atmosphere (nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc) that scatter light, so when the sun is low on the horizon that white light has to fight through more molecules and so more of the color spectrum gets scattered away. Guess what makes it to your eye? Yup, the red light since it has the longest wavelength. As the sun continues to rise/set the colors change based on how the light fights through toward your eye. Add some clouds and you can get a spectacular light show every morning/night. 

Too many clouds? If they stretch past the horizon you’re out of luck. No clouds? If the skies are very clear you can sometimes see the entire spectrum of light when the sun sets (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, or ROYGBIV). The best sunsets are really a partly cloudy sky. Maybe some altocumulus?


BONUS: The sky is blue because it has one of the shorter and more dominant wavelengths, so it scatters into your eye!

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