If you’ve looked up toward the horizon at day’s end recently, chances are you’ve seen the breathtaking sunsets that have been splashing vibrant colors across the Southern California sky.

People from across the region have been stopping to stare, cameras in hand, to capture the spectacular sights.

There’s science that explains sunsets. And if you think fall and winter months generally produce the most beautiful – you’re right.

More vivid sunsets occur when there’s a clean lower atmosphere, said Stephen Corfidi, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who wrote about the science of sunsets in a 2014 paper.

Many people think pollution contributes to a colorful sunset, but Corfidi said there’s a lot of confusion about that theory.

Some particles in the atmosphere are required to produce orange and red low-sun colors. But when the lower atmosphere — where we live — has an abundance of dust, pollen, pollution or small water droplets, those particles actually reduce the brightness of the sunlight.

“Thus, a brilliant red-orange beam of light created by passage through a long expanse of clear skies west of Los Angeles will be robbed of its brilliance and color by the large lower atmospheric particles that tend to be found near the ground in urban areas, especially when those particles build up over time,” Corfidi said previously.

Rather than pollution, it’s clean air that is the main ingredient common to brightly colored sunrises and sunsets, he said. And in fall and winter, weather patterns usually result in a clearer lower atmosphere, creating a better chance for a vivid sunset.

“Because air circulation is more sluggish during the summer, and because the photochemical reactions which result in the formation of smog and haze proceed most rapidly at that time of the year, late fall and winter are the most favored times for sunrise and sunset viewing over most of the United States,” he wrote.

The AccuWeather website also took a stab at explaining the science of sunsets.

“Sunlight is composed of all the colors of the rainbow,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Reneé Duff said in an online article. “As the sun dips down over the horizon, sunlight has to pass through a thicker layer of the atmosphere compared to the daytime. This causes the blue light that is seen during the daytime to be scattered away from our eyes, allowing more orange and red light to pass through.”

Science tells us that the essence of a beautiful sunset is in the cloud layer — specifically the clouds at the upper and lower levels. The brilliant colors that are reflected in the clouds take on the red and orange hues of the setting sun.

However, if the clouds are too low, resulting in cloudy skies, they cover up the sight of the setting sun, Duff writes.

Best vantage points

Wherever you can see the sun dip into the ocean — the colors bouncing off the water — is a prime spot to watch a Southern California sunset.

Suggested viewing sites: The end of any pier, including Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Belmont in Long Beach, Seal Beach, Newport, Huntington and San Clemente; or bluffs above the ocean with lookout areas such as the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, Inspiration Point in Corona del Mar, the Crystal Cove State Park walking trails, Heisler Park or Top of the World in Laguna Beach, or the Dana Point Headlands.

Or simply pull up a towel or beach chair and soak it all in.

Pro photo tips

Always try to have a foreground element such as trees, people or buildings to add depth and context to the photo.

When the sunset involves beautiful clouds, include them by shooting with a wider-angle lens.

If you are using a cellphone camera, use the panoramic mode to get a more dynamic photo.

Look for different ways to photograph the sunset. For example, the accompanying image of photographers on the beach takes advantage of the sunset colors reflecting off the water.

And finally, never look directly into the sun.

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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