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Sunset Science: Dusk Isn't What It Seems on Oregon, Washington Coast

Published 02/09/21 at 5:06 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Sunset Science: Dusk Isn't What It Seems on Oregon, Washington Coast

(Manzanita, Oregon) – Perhaps the ultimate reward of a day at the beach in Oregon or Washington is the end the day: that marvelous moment of sunset. Yet what you're seeing on these coastlines is not quite what it appears. In fact, sunset itself – anywhere, actually – is an illusion of sorts. (Above: sunset in Long Beach, Wash.)

The most engaging source of these oddball bits is famed scientist (and TV personality) Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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There's two major surprises about Oregon and Washington coast sunsets.

One - according to deGrasse Tyson - sunlight actually takes eight minutes to reach the Earth. Once a photon of light from the Sun is created, that's how long it takes to travel through space. We're unknowingly seeing sunlight a whole eight minutes later.

Secondly, and even more mind-blowing, is that the moment of sunset is really a kind of illusion – a projection.

It has to do with the curvature of the Earth and the way our atmosphere bends the light upwards if the sun is below a certain point. It's one of many aspects of what is called atmospheric refraction.

According to his show “Cosmos: A TimeSpace Odyssey,” his exact words say it best as he was describing a sunrise.


“That sun – it's not really there,” Tyson said. “It won't actually be above the horizon for another two minutes. Sunrise is an illusion. Earth's atmosphere bends the incoming rays, like a lens or a glass of water. So we see the image of the sun projected above the horizon before the physical sun is actually there.”

Conversely, for the Oregon and Washington coast, we would see the sunset for about another two minutes after it actually had gone away.

That curvature of the Earth and this projection / refraction element also play a major role in another unusual phenomena called the Novaya Zemlya effect. This is where you have a cloud layer on the horizon, and at the moment of sunset you suddenly have a two- or three-headed sunset.


This too is a projection, partnering with certain types of weather offshore. Often, this projection above the real sunset happens after the sun has actually gone down as well. See more on the Novaya Zemlya and the Green Flash.

Yet another surprising aspect of sundown on the Oregon and Washington coasts is that it happens later than inland valley towns. Online sunset times are now more accurate regarding this, but they did not used to be. They and almanacs often listed sunset in Portland and Cannon Beach, for example, as the same.

Oregon Coast Beach Connection put this to the test one year on the summer solstice, and discovered there was a seven-minute difference. The difference in times between the beaches and the I-5 corridor can shrink depending if you head farther to the southern Oregon coast or to up towards Seattle.

So if you want a more interesting and longer sunset – as well as a tad more daylight – head to the beaches that day. (Sunrise, of course, happens a little later too).

Granted, the exact moment the sun goes down is tricky: it depends on where you are in relation to mountainous areas. The almanac always bases sunset times on a flat horizon and unimpeded view of the sunset. Those in downtown Portland or even SE Portland will see the sun go down much sooner because of the west hills, but Beaverton will only have the distant coast range to block the sunset.

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Coos Bay's Sunset Bay (courtesy Oregon's Adventure Coast: Coos Bay, Charleston, North Bend)

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