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New weather model predicts vivid sunsets before they happen

Photo: Sigma Sreedharan Photography

Western Washington residents have been treated to some dramatic sunsets this year -- one of the many benefits of living in an area framed with dramatic mountains and shimmering waterways.

Most nights, they kind of sneak up on us - sure, a sunset happens every day but you need specific conditions for nature to put on a show-stopper. Yet when those conditions come together, it's 30 minutes of sheer beauty rarely matched anywhere else.

But what if you knew ahead of time the upcoming sunset was going to be worthy of a drive to your favorite vista point?

That's exactly the project three meteorologists in Pennsylvania have undertaken, with promising results. They've created a sunset forecast weather model that aims to show where the most vivid sunsets could be expected across the nation for that night.

Their model takes data from the high resolution North American Model (NAM) and then they run their own calculations, paying close attention to predicted moisture, pressure, and cloud cover.

"We quickly realized that some things were more important than others, and decided on a weighting scheme," said site co-owner Jacob DeFlitch. "The most important factor I look for is sky cover, and more specifically, the existence of high clouds over the area. High clouds not only provide moisture to refract the sunlight, their 'wispy' formation also provides 'texture' to the sky and are high enough in the atmosphere for the sun to scatter light below. Think of these as a movie theatre screen, in which light can be projected upon."

Sunsets that would meet those criteria would be classified as "vivid" and were given bright yellow, orange, and red colors on the model. DeFlitch said clear skies, while providing great views of the sunset, would typically lack the clouds to really reflect the colors and would be given more "average" status. And places that were predicted to be socked in with low clouds and/or rain would be "poor" status, denoted in the drab blues on the model.

The result: A unique forecast model that doesn't directly predict rain or sun, but sunsets!



(Find the current model image here and click on the "Menu" tab on the upper left corner)

The model just debuted on Nov. 18 and so far, so good.

"From what we have seen so far, the model has been very accurate. One of our biggest 'wins' came from the extremely vivid sunset along the I-95 corridor from (Washington, D.C. to New York City) on Nov. 22," he said. It was an event their model accurately predicted and was featured on Slate.com.

DeFlitch said the idea for the model came from his own frustrations as a campus photographer while studying meteorology at Penn State University.

"I never wanted to miss a great sunset opportunity, however, this unfortunately happened a good number of times because I was unaware of all the factors that took place to allow for a vivid sunset," he said. "As a meteorologist, I would look primarily at the visible satellite, however that would not always tell the tale." He said about five months after graduating, he got with his fellow meteorologists Ben Reppert and Steve Hallett and the sunset forecast model was born.

"Since then, we have been working on improving the algorithm, the model itself, and expanding to sunrises," DeFlitch said.

And the future of the model is bright, DeFlitch said. They are considering ideas such as expanding their models' reach beyond the United States ("We've had much interest from Canada, Europe and Australia," he says.) and creating an app that could alert you when a good sunset is likely.

In the meantime, they're asking for your help in verifying their model's performance. If you've got a good photo of that night's sunset, you can Tweet it to them @sunset_wx or post it on their Facebook page.

"At the moment we're working on this project as much as we can, given two of us have full-time meteorologist positions and another is a full time student," DeFlitch said. "However, we think we are definitely making progress!"

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