How a grey blustery day evolved into a spectacular sunset show

Every afternoon I keep an eye out for a gap below the clouds on the western horizon.  When low angle sunlight sneaks below clouds on the western horizon, it can make for a dynamic sunset.  Today Northern New Mexico was blustery with different layers of clouds and little blue sky.   I reserved myself to staying inside and working on the computer since I did not expect any sunlight from the setting sun to punch through the thick clouds.

Stratocumulus clouds under cirrostratus clouds at sunset in New Mexico

Different layers of storm clouds over the Jemez Mountains, New Mexico at sunset. The lower and darker stratocumulus clouds (2,000 – 6,500 ft) were not illuminated with the warm-colored sunlight underlit higher cirrocumulus clouds (16,500 – 45,000 ft). I was grateful to see the bright yellows and reds on the cirrocumulus clouds through “windows” in the stratocumulus layer.

It seems like when I decide that the sunset will be a dud, it turns out to be great.  When I did a quick check outside on the sunset potential, I realized I needed to rush to my favorable location and photograph what looked to be a great light show.

As I photographed the storm movement, different “views” into the upper atmosphere light show unfolded.

Pinkish-purple light reflects downward from the upper-level cirrocumulus clouds providing a pink hue to the lower stratocumulus clouds’ edges.

Sunlight contains all colors of the visible spectrum.  As sunlight traverses, the atmosphere scatters blue light more efficiently than warmer colors.  At sunrise and sunset, the pathlength of light rays from the sun through the Earth’s atmosphere is so long that the blue colors are removed, leaving reddish color sunlight.  When reddish sunlight illuminates clouds’ undersides, it reflects down to our eye.

Small dark “cloudlets” from the lower cloud layer floated off on their own, causing some nice contrast against the higher elevation clouds’ undersides — which were bathed in red sunlight.

Even though I love trying to figure out if the sunrise/sunset will be spectacular in color based on the cloud layers and a gap on the horizon, I love it, even more, when I am surprised at showtime.  Tonight’s sunset completely surprised me.  Watching thick clouds all day long on this gray blustering day convinced me that sunset would be a dud.  I am glad I was wrong!