Why wildfires create red suns and moons

Red suns and moons: Waning moon with a reddish orange color.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Thomas Stirling in West Kennebunk, Maine, captured this photo of the moon on July 25, 2021. He wrote: “The moon appeared very red as it rose from the treeline in my backyard. I assume it’s because of California wildfire smoke resting high in the atmosphere.” Thank you, Thomas!

Wildfires, and red suns and moons

Wildfires raging in western North America in 2021 have affected air quality and the look of the sky in places thousands of miles away. Many people have noticed hazy skies overhead or seen at a distance, or red suns and moons. July’s full moon took on an eerie reddish hue, similar to the moon when it undergoes a lunar eclipse. Recent sunsets have featured a hot-pink to electric-orange orb, also due to wildfire smoke drifting in from far away. But what makes the sun and moon turn red?

2020 had a heck of a wildfire season, too. Remember last year, when the entire sky in San Francisco turned an orange hue that might have been straight out of a dystopian sci fi movie? Last year, Les Cowley answered our question about these red skies for EarthSky readers. Cowley publishes the great website Atmospheric Optics and is surely the world’s best-known living master of the physics of sky phenomena. Here’s the explanation he provided in 2020. It holds true again this year:

The color of our skies is a matter of the sizes of the particles making up our air. It’s also a function of the number of particles per unit volume in air, and to a much lesser extent – during wildfire season – the color of soot itself.

Particles smaller than visible light wavelengths scatter short wavelengths (e.g. blue light) much more strongly than long wavelengths (red). This is known as Rayleigh scattering, named for Lord Rayleigh in the 19th century, who derived the small particle limit. Lord Rayleigh determined that the scattering goes as the inverse fourth power of the wavelength.

Hence, blue light is scattered some 10 to 15 times more than red light. Air molecules scattering in this manner are what generate our blue skies.

Note that the light of even glorious red sunsets still has some transmitted blue. Not all is scattered away!

As particles get bigger they still scatter blue more than red, but the wavelength dependence weakens from the Rayleigh limit of the fourth power. Particles several times larger than light wavelengths scatter all wavelengths more or less equally.

Fresh smoke is an intermediate case. Look at a campfire sideways-on to the sunlight direction, and you’ll see its smoke is blue. If you are unfortunate enough to be downwind and in the smoke, the sun is reddened,

The wildfire smoke over the U.S. West [in 2020 was] largely in this regime. It scatters away more blue, and the sun’s transmitted light is reddened (but not completely denuded of blues).

All this holds for single scattering where a sun ray is scattered by only one particle before reaching the eye. Where the smoke clouds are dense, there is significant multiple scattering. In the limit of an optically thick cloud, the light inside the cloud (or sky) becomes a uniform color: that of the incident light before significant multiple scattering. Thus, clouds are white inside, and a clear blue sky gets milky white toward the horizon. Multiple scattering will modify the sky colors in San Francisco, for example, to an almost uniform orange-red. It is orange-red because the sunlight reaching the dense smoke has already been reddened by less dense smoke.

Sky colors with multiple scattering get complicated and need mathematical modeling to make predictions.

If you’ve captured photos of a strange colored moon, sun or sky due to smoke from wildfires, share it with EarthSky at EarthSky Community Photos!

Red suns and moons: Here we see 4 full moons, starting with a very red one (closest to the horizon) and shifting to paler and paler yellow as the moon rises higher.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nina Gorenstein in West Lafayette, Indiana, captured this series of photos of the moon on July 23, 2021. She wrote: “Hazy atmospheric conditions make today’s full moon very special. When the moon appeared from behind the trees (about 40 minutes after moonrise) and was rather low above the horizon, it was so red! While the moon was going up, the redness was gradually changing to orange and then to more yellowish colors.” Thanks, Nina!
A very deep orange-red waxing gibbous moon in a dark sky.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Bill Reyna in Wayne, New Jersey, wrote on July 21, 2021: “Calling this one the Smoke Moon, as the moon has been rendered an unusual orange color, almost looking like an eclipse, by the smoke from the fires from the western U.S. and Canada.” Thank you, Bill.
Wildfire smoke caused this very red sun, crossed by clouds, in a darkened sky, above a dark horizon.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Eric Thurber in Boise, Idaho, captured a reddened sun due to wildfire smoke on July 19, 2021: “Sunsets continue to be pretty wild as the smoke continues to roll into southwest Idaho.” Thank you, Eric.

Remember 2020’s red skies over California?

Very red full moon, amidst clouds.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Jim Hatcher in San Diego, California, captured this very red sun on September 7, 2020. The red color was caused by smoke in the air due to wildfires in the U.S. West this week.

Bottom line: The color of our skies – and the objects in our skies – can change, depending on the sizes of the particles making up our air. More particles per unit volume in air can also cause a color change. Plus – during wildfire season – the color of soot itself influences sky color and the colors of visible suns and moons.

July 28, 2021

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