The Science Behind Brilliant Irish Sunrises and Sunsets

Irish Sunrise Scattering Light over Shannon River Valley

Irish Sunrise Scattering Light over Shannon River Valley

Irish sunrises tend to be unique, colorful and incredibly brilliant, and the sun itself often can appear much larger on the horizon. What’s the science behind this spectacular natural phenomenon?

It all has to do with atmospheric particles and the angle of the sun, which, of course, changes with the seasons.

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The clear and relatively unpolluted skies over Ireland tend to create a perfect environment for these rich, luminous colors, while the atmosphere at these lower angles acts as a magnifying glass creating the appearance of a larger sun.

The low angle of the sun shining on Ireland during Fall and Winter months coupled with moisture in the air effectively splits the beams of light into these intense colors, just like a prism, with the resulting palette reflected on clouds. The same effect also is what creates rainbows.

The effect usually is short-lived as the sun passes through the optimum low angle for creating this prism effect.

The technical term for what I’m calling the “prism effect” is “Rayleigh scattering,” named after Lord Rayleigh, a British physicist, who discovered this phenomenon in which light and other electromagnetic radiation are “elastically scattered” by particles (atoms or molecules)  much smaller than the wavelength of the light itself.

That’s your science lesson for today… Your homework is to go out and enjoy a sunrise or sunset wherever you are!

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