Whether you’re trying to impress your Instagram followers with photos of an awe-inspiring, pastel sunset or simply seeking a spot to unwind and watch the sun go down after a long day, understanding the weather can help you find the perfect spot to score that breathtaking view.
James Murakami, UCLA’s staff meteorologist, has perfected the art and science of predicting the weather for over 30 years using data, software, and weather tracking instruments. Across the country at SUNY Albany, Ross Lazear teaches weather analysis and forecasting for the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences. We spoke to the two of them to discover the secrets behind the perfect sunset. “When you want to watch a sunset, I think the most important thing is to monitor the weather forecasts for that location,” says Murakami.
1. FOLLOW THE WEATHER
“Some people assume a weather forecast doesn’t change from day to day,” says Murakami. “You should know when and where on the horizon the sun will set. [For example,] the sun might set sooner than published tables if a tall mountain is in the way of your view.”
2. WATCH THE CLOUDS
“In general, clouds make or break the scenic look. Depending on atmospheric instability, the shape of clouds may differ from one location to another and change over time. Clouds are hard to predict in some cases, even a few hours in advance. Lens-shaped clouds may only occur for as little as an hour. Such clouds are most common on the ‘lee side’ [the eastern side] of a mountain,” says Murakami. Perfect for sunset gazing, the “lee side” is the side that is protected from wind and has a dry, warm climate.
The best sunsets are those with partial mid-level cloud cover,” says Ross Lazear, Weather Expert at SUNY Albany. “Altocumulus, cirrocumulus, or cirrus clouds are especially vibrant at sunset. Once the sun falls below the horizon, these mid- and upper-level clouds can still be lit from below, providing vivid pinks, oranges, and reds. Sometimes, sunsets can be especially beautiful and reddish when the sky is smoky—when wildfires have produced large amounts of smoke that then drifts overhead, sometimes from great distances away,” adds Lazear.
3. THE SEASON MATTERS
“Clean air is more common in the cooler seasons compared with the warmer seasons when there is summer haze for instance, not to mention higher pollution levels in general,” says Murakami.
“Although a tiny crescent moon near the horizon shortly after sunset can be a beautiful sight, wind and moon phase don’t really have much to do with sunsets,” Lazear says. “However, the time of year can often make a big difference. In seasons where there is less humidity, the colors in the sky are often much more vibrant.”
4. LOOK FOR AN OPEN SKY
Clear, clean air is best for creating beautiful sunsets. “For generally clear air, coastal locations should be better than normally dusty areas, like deserts,” says Murakami. “I’m originally from the Midwest U.S., and personally, I think the sunsets are incredible in that part of the country,” says Lazear. “There are very few hills, mountains, or trees, which makes the sky seem to go on forever. Incredible thunderstorms can set the stage for amazing sunlit cloudscapes at sunset.”
5. AVOID THE WIND AND SEEK HIGHER GROUND
“High altitude clouds reflect off reds better than low clouds. Unless you want to photograph a storm scene, you wouldn’t want to work in windy weather,” says Murakami. “For a classic red sunset, you want ‘clean’ air. Too many particles of dust, for instance, will mute colors. On the other hand, if the particles - such as volcanic dust - occur at high altitudes above an elevation of 10,000 ft., red sunsets tend to be enhanced. The higher the elevation, the better,” Murakami says.