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Winter sunsets really are more spectacular. Here’s why

The sunset over the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, with colors reflected by clouds.
The sunset over the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, with colors reflected by clouds.
(Rose Bowl)

Driving west in San Pedro late in the afternoon on New Year’s Day, I watched thick puffs of clouds overhead churn from periwinkle blue to flaming orangey pink in what seemed like seconds. I pulled over, gawked and snapped photos. What was going on? Why did this sunset grab me so hard?

Sunset in San Pedro
Two photos show the shift of colors in a sunset on New Year’s Day, as seen in San Pedro.
(Mary Forgione)

Stephen LaDochy, who teaches meteorology and climatology at Cal State Los Angeles, chalked it up to atmospheric optics. “It’s different types of scattering, reflection and refraction of light,” he says. Translation: Light is made up of different colors, each with its own range of wavelengths. Blue and green light waves are shorter, which means they bounce and scatter more easily. At sunset, those colors get filtered out, leaving longer wavelengths of reds and oranges that can make your heart melt.

Look for owl chicks, explore tidepools and count sheep to boost your outdoors time in the new year.

But there’s something else going on in winter. Sunsets become more vivid because of low humidity and cleaner air, especially after it rains. That means there are fewer particulates to wash out colors and create hazy sunsets, which are more typical in summer. Also, the Earth spins closer to the sun in winter (we were closest Jan. 4), and the “angle the sun takes setting makes sunset colors last a bit longer,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist Stephen Corfidi recently told Vox.

Sunset taken from the top of a parking structure in Newport Beach, looking southwest, on New Year’s Day.
Sunset seen from the top of a parking structure in Newport Beach, looking southwest, on New Year’s Day.
(Shelby Grad / Los Angeles Times)

The final ingredient: clouds, which reflect the stunning hues back at us. “Clouds make it much more brilliant,” LaDochy says. “They act like a [viewing] screen.” Here are some tips on how to get the most out of winter sunset viewing.

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Be on time. Shorter days mean early sunsets, and you don’t want to miss the celestial show. Check out timeanddate.com for when the sun will set in your area. Plan to be in place about a half-hour before to watch the show.

Need inspiration? Listen to author John Green (“The Fault in Our Stars,” “Turtles All the Way Down”) explain why sunsets should always spark awe in his podcast “Capacity for Wonder and Sunsets,” an episode of “The Anthropocene Reviewed” (bit.ly/sunsetawe).

Where to go. To watch the sun sink from the sky, any beach or high point will do. My picks include:

  • Palisades Park in Santa Monica, next to the famed Santa Monica Pier, which parallels Ocean Avenue and offers wide-angle views of the beach below.
  • Point Fermin Park at 807 Paseo Del Mar in San Pedro affords cliffside views of the ocean, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Catalina Island.
  • Stuck in the city? Head up to the Griffith Observatory at 2800 E. Observatory Road for a long view of the L.A. Basin. If you have time and want a higher point, take the Charlie Turner Trail off the parking lot up to Mt. Hollywood (1,625 feet in elevation). It’s about a mile and a half each way.

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