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The secret behind some of the most vivid sunsets in the Midwest

Wildfire smoke unveils Mother Nature's secret behind stunning sunsets.
Credit: Mary Gross
Credit: Mary Gross

MOLINE, Ill. — More than two dozen wildfires are currently raging across parts of Canada, especially in the Province of Alberta, sending smoke-filled skies into the United States at times in the last week. The smoke is located in the upper levels of the atmosphere and is responsible for numerous instances of low air quality, including most recently here in the Quad Cities. 

Did you know, though, that wildfire smoke is behind some of the most vivid sunsets you'll witness in the Midwest? Let's dig in and see why! 

How smoke impacts the colors we see

We have to go back to middle school and perhaps high school science class to explain this one. Do you remember the visible light spectrum, (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) ROYGBIV for short? It's the segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye can view. 

Smoke and even dust can block and prevent some of these colors on the spectrum from punching through to the ground. In this case, the colors with shorter wavelengths, green, blue, indigo, and violet, get caught up and filtered out through the smoke, leaving red, orange, and yellow to pass through to the ground. 

Credit: WQAD
Colors with longer wavelengths can survive thick layers of smoke, making them more visible to us on the ground.

This process gives the sun and in some cases the moon a very red, orange appearance compared to an average day with clear skies. Throw in a couple of clouds and you can really capture a stunning sunset that is full of vibrant color. 

Smoke filters, but also cools

In addition to filtering out certain colors in the visible light spectrum, the smoke can also limit the total amount of incoming solar radiation, or energy from the sun, even putting a small dent in the overall temperature pattern!

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