Sunset – The Death of a Day 18 Mar 2015

Sunsets, to me, are magic. The fiery red, orange, and yellow of spectacular sunsets have always given me a sense of peace and tranquility, heralding the scintillating glory of the star-filled firmament. Sunsets uplift and help me maintain perspective, whereas sunrises to me are chilly and a bit depressing. I know, I know. That’s just the reverse for most people. But there it is.

Even though it seems we have hardly seen a glimpse of the sun for weeks, it’s still there, hovering about 93 million miles from Earth and bringing light to us daily. We can be grateful that it isn’t closer. The sun’s surface temperature is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, with the core a blazing 27 million degrees. It is huge by any measure – about a million Earths could fit into it.

Our sun has long fascinated human beings, and with good cause. It is the center of our Solar System, and the virtually exclusive source of all our energy – electrical, botanical, and human. Over the past several days we’ve been privileged to see some spectacular sunsets here in East Texas.

But why are sunsets so often red, orange, and yellow? A widely held misconception is that dust and air pollution make for bright sunsets. Actually, the reverse is the fact. Pollution tends to dim the evening display.

Stephen F. Corfidi, with the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, wrote in September 2014 that “air molecules are slightly closer in size to the wavelength of violet light than to that of red light [so] pure air scatters violet light three to four times more effectively than it does the longer wavelengths.” He goes on to say that “sunlight has a longer path at sunset than at midday. So there is more scattering of blue and violet.” The result is that the blue wavelengths don’t reach us, but the red, orange, and yellow wavelengths do, and they monopolize the illumination of what we see, especially as they reflect from higher altitude clouds.

Over generations of time, those who spent the most time outdoors, such as farmers and sailors, were more aware of the sky because they were dependent on weather for crop planting, harvesting, as well as travel and safety on the seas.

For example, mariners have long said:

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.
Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.

Is there any truth to these sayings? To some extent, the answer is yes. Red sky at night can indicate high pressure and stable air approaching. Thus, good weather will follow. Morning red sky can mean that the good weather is headed out and a storm system may be approaching.

In Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare wrote:

Like a red morn that ever yet betokened,
Wreck to the seaman, tempest to the field,
Sorrow to the shepherds, woe unto the birds,
Gusts and foul flaws to herdmen and to herds.

Even in the days of Jesus Christ, sky phenomena were carefully observed. Although the message was to the Pharisees and Sadducees and meant as a warning of their hypocrisy, it is clear that seafarers were aware of the omens of sky colors.

In Matthew 16: 1-3 the Bible quotes the Savior as saying:

1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven.
2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.
3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring.
O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? (Emphasis added.)

Our modern lives tend to sentence us to spend too many hours indoors, away from the beauties of nature. Perhaps the ancients can teach us a lesson. Maybe it’s time to change our priorities and be more aware of the special natural events that surround us in our fields and forests – and skies.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.