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One Freak of a Sunset on Oregon Coast (Video): the Science of Why

Published 09/03/22 at 9:05 PM
By Andre' GW Hagestedt

One Freak of a Sunset on Oregon Coast (Video): the Science of Why

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(Seaside, Oregon) – Without a doubt, it was the most amaze-balls sunset I had ever encountered, and I've photographed hundreds of them over the last two decades and a half on the Oregon coast (thousands, if you count all the bracketed shots). This unforgettable sight grew out of an odd hole in the sky during a particularly surprising sunset – you did not expect this at all, as conditions had become fairly cloudy. All photos Oregon Coast Beach Connection

Yet there it was: not only a brilliantly-colored sunset poking through the clouds but a host of weird shapes that shifted, grew and turned into something really unique. Surprises at every turn was the rule of the moment in this spot, this time.

Way back in 2004, I'm wandering the southern, rather remote edges of Seaside, and I see some light peeking through the cloud cover that was clearly killing any chance of a decent sunset. “So not all hope is lost?” I thought to myself. True, there was a small slit of light right at the horizon, and I knew that could create something interesting. But who really knew?

As I'm approaching the beach access it gets stranger: all of a sudden there's this distorted shaft of light streaming through. I start rushing towards the tideline. En route, I hurriedly snap a couple of pics in the access brush. Then, I realize – purely from experience – this thing is going to look awesome when reflected in the ocean.

Sure enough, as I'm running towards this Oregon coast wonder, it does just that. But now it's this freaky prism-like shape and rather bright, and its reflection creates one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen on these beaches.

Oh yeah, it's definitely reminiscent of that Pink Floyd album cover, and since the light was rather pinkish, I've forever dubbed it the Pink Floyd Sunset.

It all disappears within a minute or so, and suddenly the shaft and its reflection are gone, but for about 20 seconds the light holes appearing in the sky look a bit like a giant face. The whole thing was almost a spiritual experience.

Not until almost ten years later did I figure out what this was. Doing a story on those shafts of light you sometimes get in the clouds at dusk, a complete picture came together.

This – and those giant shafts – are crepuscular rays. And they're a whole freaky thing in themselves.

Years later, I chatted with Treena Jensen of the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Portland. She told me these shafts of bent light were really just particulates in the air being illuminated by the sunlight bursting through a hole in the clouds.

“It's related to the twilight rays that kind of peek through what seem to be holes in the clouds at sunrise and sunset, so the rays appear to converge outward from the setting sun,” Jensen said. “And they're only visible when there's enough haze and dust in the atmosphere so the areas not shadowed from the clouds can be scattered towards the observer.”

They're seen all over – not just the Washington coast or Oregon coast. On the coastlines, however, particulates are probably just moisture from the ocean itself, or maybe wildfire smoke. See the full story Oregon Coast Science: What Are Those Shafts of Sunlight / Fingers of God?

Why are they bent? That's a weird one. Crepuscular rays are actually quite straight (photos from space prove that), but for us they appear bent because of perspective. You know how when you look at railroad tracks and they smaller the farther away you are? That's exactly what's going on here.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees nearly 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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