Day 5: On the color of sunrise through my window

Since I haven’t quite adjusted to the 17 hour time difference between Kwajalein and Central Time Zone, I’ve been waking up early. The first day it was 4 am, then 4:30. This morning was 7, so I’m feeling like I’m pretty much on island time now.

On that first morning, I was padding barefoot around a still-unfamiliar house, making coffee in our (still so thankful for the neighbors) borrowed coffee pot and writing my first blog post when I saw a pink glow through my dining room window. It was the beginning of a sunset, and the tiny slice I could see through the palm trees looked glorious. I grabbed my sandals and walked toward the glow and down to the beach along the ocean.

I set up my phone to take a time-lapse of the sunrise then sat back and watched the colors form. Pinks, oranges, yellows, reds, maybe purple? The video doesn’t do it justice.

Why so much color?

A new friend told me later that day that sunrise after a rain is usually the most colorful. We talked about why we thought that would be, and this morning I did a little more digging.

The colors at sunrise (and sunset, but I’m having a hard time staying up that late) come from something called scattering. Light rays bounce off of molecules and small particles in the atmosphere, scattering the light in different directions. The colors of the sunrise are determined by the wavelength of the light and the size of the particle it hits. Blue and violet, for example, are short-wavelength, so they scatter in the air more than other colors, which is why we see a blue sky on a clear day. We don’t see violet well, or we’d be looking at a blue and purple sky.

When the sun is just peeking over the horizon at sunrise, light passes through more atmosphere to reach us, which means even more particles are available to scatter the blue and violet light. Those wavelengths bounce around so much they don’t make it to our eyes. The other, longer wavelength colors continue on, giving me a fuchsia and titian Kwajalein morning.

Clean air and clouds

A couple other factors make the Kwaj sunrise a spectacular show. Air pollution mutes and blocks colors in the sky, so the clean air of the remote South Pacific allows more light to pass through the atmosphere and reflect off the clouds.

Clouds are the other sunrise-enhancing factor. Clouds high aloft in the atmosphere – cirrus and altocumulus layers – are usually best for reflecting the first rays of the morning. However, in the open ocean and the tropics where the lower atmosphere is cleaner and more transparent, lower level clouds such as stratus or stratocumulus become a rich sunrise theater, catching the scarlets and auburns low in the sky.

Getting existential

So there’s the how of a Kwajalein sunrise, but we need John Keats to answer the “why” question: Why does a sunrise lift my morning, stop my brain, pin me to a rocky seat on a coral beach until all of the colors unfurl?

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats