The Science of Sunsets

During my travels, I’ve seen some outstanding sunsets – each of them was different, special in a way, and has been captured in my memory ever since. Going through my pictures, I started wondering – What makes Phuket have those beautiful sunsets? And why is Africa supposed to have the best ones Worldwide? In fact, what makes the color of a sunset?

Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Sunlight is composed of a spectrum of colors that range from blue/violet to orange/red. Each of the colors have a different wavelength – I don’t want to get too geeky, it’s probably easier if you picture a rainbow. The inner colours of the rainbow are violet and blue (which have the shortest wavelength); while the outer ones are orange and red, the colours with the longest wavelength.

At noon, the sun appears to be white because all wavelengths of visual light reach our eyes with almost the same intensity (remember that Pink Floyd album cover -The Dark Side of the Moon? That’s what I mean!). However, at sunrise and sunset, sunlight takes a much longer path through the atmosphere. Because air molecules scatter away the shortest wavelengths of light, the light that reaches our eyes is rather orange / red.

Sunset in Phuket, Thailand

All good – But what makes sunsets in some parts of the World more beautiful than in others?

What determines actually the kind of sunset is the size and concentration of atmospheric particles in the path of the incoming sunlight. Very small particles scatter blue and violet light preferentially, leading to a glowing orange and red sunset. A heavy concentration of small particles will create even redder sunsets.

Does that mean that if we’re somewhere with high air pollution, we’ll get to see a better sunset?

No. Pollution particles are too large, so instead of enhancing the colors of the sky, they subdue them. This is also the reason for which sunsets in deserts and the tropics are more dramatic – the air pollution is rather minimal or non-existent!

Sunset in Phuket, Thailand

Taking away pollution, there are many other smaller particles that can be floating in the air to create the perfect glowing reddish sunset, such as salt particles over the ocean, or dust and ash from a volcanic eruption.

Where have you captured your favorite sunset?

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18 thoughts on “The Science of Sunsets

  1. I just returned from Hawaii and I have to say sunsets live up to their expectations. Don't blink though because within about 5 minutes the sun is down. You have a great site! Found it through FTLOB! I plan on putting your button on my site.

  2. I've saw some beautiful sunsets in the Canary Islands . . . although the sun goes down so fast there compared to in the UK you can virtually blink and miss them!

  3. Sunsets over the ocean always get me, but I've seen some incredible ones in Arizona too!Gorgeous photos!Merip.s. I'm having a giveaway on my blog- come check it out!

  4. I agree, gorgeous photos! My favorite sunsets and sunrises are in my hometown of cocoa beach, florida. I think it's because it's so flat that you can see it for miles!

  5. How interesting! I loved the sunsets in Miami. I am going to the desert in Morocco soon, so hopefully I'll get a good one! Your pictures are GORGEOUS!

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