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What Determines Sky's Colors At Sunrise And Sunset?

Date:
November 15, 2007
Source:
University of Wisconsin - Madison
Summary:
The colors of the sunset result from a phenomenon called scattering. Molecules and small particles in the atmosphere change the direction of light rays, causing them to scatter. Scattering affects the color of light coming from the sky, but the details are determined by the wavelength of the light and the size of the particle.

Molecules and small particles in the atmosphere change the direction of light rays, causing them to scatter and resulting in colorful sunsets.
Credit: iStockphoto/Michael Valdez

The colors of the sunset result from a phenomenon called scattering, says Steven Ackerman, professor of meteorology at UW-Madison. Molecules and small particles in the atmosphere change the direction of light rays, causing them to scatter.

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Scattering affects the color of light coming from the sky, but the details are determined by the wavelength of the light and the size of the particle. The short-wavelength blue and violet are scattered by molecules in the air much more than other colors of the spectrum. This is why blue and violet light reaches our eyes from all directions on a clear day. But because we can't see violet very well, the sky appears blue.

Scattering also explains the colors of the sunrise and sunset, Ackerman says.

“Because the sun is low on the horizon, sunlight passes through more air at sunset and sunrise than during the day, when the sun is higher in the sky. More atmosphere means more molecules to scatter the violet and blue light away from your eyes. If the path is long enough, all of the blue and violet light scatters out of your line of sight. The other colors continue on their way to your eyes. This is why sunsets are often yellow, orange, and red.”

And because red has the longest wavelength of any visible light, the sun is red when it’s on the horizon, where its extremely long path through the atmosphere blocks all other colors.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Wisconsin - Madison. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Wisconsin - Madison. "What Determines Sky's Colors At Sunrise And Sunset?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 November 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071108135522.htm>.
University of Wisconsin - Madison. (2007, November 15). What Determines Sky's Colors At Sunrise And Sunset?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 31, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071108135522.htm
University of Wisconsin - Madison. "What Determines Sky's Colors At Sunrise And Sunset?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071108135522.htm (accessed January 31, 2015).

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