Red sky at night – why do we have beautiful sunrises and sunsets?

Staring up into the sky is one of the best time-wasters I know of. Don’t laugh.

I love star gazing.

My son and I get a kick out of looking for shapes in the clouds.

It’s fun to teach him about basic meterology, by observing what’s happening up above our heads.

So when a friend’s small daughter wanted to know why the sky could get so colourful at sunrise and sunset, I just knew we had to take a look at this great question!

It’s all to do with wavelengths.

The colours that we can see in the atmosphere all sit on wavelengths of radiation – ie light – which comes from the sun. The sun produces a huge range of ultraviolet radiation, only some of which we humans can perceive with our eyes.

When the sun is high in the sky, the angle that these wavelengths of light hit the atmosphere scatter and fill up the blue spectrum, so on a sunny day we see blue skies.

As the sun drops lower into the horizon, the wavelengths have further to travel through the atmosphere to get to us. This change in angle commonly affects the red,orange, pink and yellow sectors of the colour spectrum, and these are the colours our eyes perceive. A gorgeous, vivid sunrise or sunset!

A clear, dry sky provides a better ‘pathway’ for the wavelengths and that is why we generally get better sunsets under these conditions. It also gives truth to the old saying ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning’… If we have a beautiful sunset, it indicates a large area of clear, dry sky to the west, equalling good weather on the way.

If this all goes ‘over your child’s head’ (I’m so sorry, I just couldn’t resist that pun) who cares? Just pull them tighter and have another precious cuddle together while you watch the sunrise or sunset. Sometimes words and theories really don’t matter one bit 🙂

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