The Science of Sunsets

SCIENCE

Scarlet skies inspire many viewers to grab their cameras, and prompt a question: Why are some sunsets so spectacular, and others a mere muddle? Stephen Corfidi, a meteorologist who’s written about the science of colorful sunsets, helps us see the light. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to better understand the science of sunsets.

Flash, bam, alakazam, out of a scattered-photon sky! . . . Did that sentence not make any sense to you? Let Lady Gaga explain it. Better yet, let Nat King Cole. Photograph by Kimberly Dumke, National Geographic

Flash, bam, alakazam, out of a scattered-photon sky! . . . Did that sentence not make any sense to you? Let Lady Gaga explain it. Better yet, let Nat King Cole.
Photograph by Kimberly Dumke, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • Look at the photo above, or look at the same photo on our website. Why do you think the sky in the top of the photo is blue, while the sky near the horizon is orange? (Read through “Orange Sunset, Emerald Isle” or the Nat Geo News article for clues.)
    • Oxygen and nitrogen, the “two main molecules in air preferentially scatter the shortest wavelengths, which are blues and purples,” according to the meteorologist interviewed in the Nat Geo News article. “Basically, that’s why the daytime sky is blue.””As the sun rises and sets, however,” according to our media spotlight, “its light passes through much more of Earth’s atmosphere before reaching our eyes. Blue and violet light are scattered away. Only the long, reddish wavelengths can go the distance.”

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