Understanding the Colors of Sunrise and Sunset

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We have seen some very colorful sunrises and sunsets lately. In fact, it happens throughout the entire year. But it only occurs at sunrise and sunset.

This is because when the sun's angle is low on the horizon, much of the light entering our atmosphere gets reflected or refracted.

Certain colors such as blue and green on the light spectrum get filtered out because they have short wavelengths. The colors with longer wavelengths, red, orange and yellow do not get filtered out. As a result, those are the colors we see in those fiery sunrises and sunsets.

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Typically a thin layer of clouds can help bring out the brilliant warm colors. The ice crystals in the clouds do an additional scattering of the light helping to intensify the colors.

The fall and winter seasons seem to bring more pretty sunrises and sunsets. The overall sun angle is lower in the Northern Hemisphere in the fall and winter.

When the sun's angle is low, light has to travel through more of the atmosphere, therefore more light gets scattered. In addition, strong fall and winter cold fronts tend to blow away pollution and humidity leaving a better view of the colorful sky.

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