What makes sunrises so beautiful?

What makes sunrises so beautiful?
This sun rising over the Indian River in Titusville. (S. Dunn)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Like sunsets, sunrises can be absolutely stunning. Often, sunrises will have beautiful red, yellow, or orange tones. To understand why these colors appear we must first understand the scattering of light.

Scattering happens when small particles or molecules floating in the atmosphere cause photons of light to change directions.

When the sun is low on the horizon, like it is during sunrise and sunset, the sunlight must travel more through the atmosphere. The long trip leaves the longer wavelength colors (those reds, yellows, and oranges), but scatters the shorter wavelengths out.

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A few clouds also help the sunrise become more vibrant, but not all types of clouds are good. The best clouds for vibrant colors are the middle-level or high-level clouds. Low-level clouds tend to be thicker and attenuate longer wavelengths coming through the horizon.

What about haze, dust, and smoke? Do these make for better sunrises?

Not necessarily. Dust can make skies milky. Think of it as having a thick, high-level cloud, scattering out all wavelengths of light. Dust often just leaves us with a white filter. Skies are often very milky and, at times, the sun can appear like a small, yellowish dot that lacks the burning look of a beautiful sunrise.

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