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On Sunsets

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On the science and romance of the setting sun. 

As the Earth rotates at 1,670 kilometres per hour, the sun appears to rise in the east and then, over the course of up to 12 hours depending on your geographic location and the season, appears to sink towards the western horizon. At the end of this period we call daytime, the light from the sun approaches us from a sharper angle, and, refracted through the atmosphere like light through a prism, it’s the red-orange-yellow wavelengths at the shorter end of the spectrum we see until finally, with nightfall following the short transition to dusk, no light from the Sun reaches us at all. That’s all a sunset is from one point of view just a matter of Copernican mechanics. 

It’s easy to see why the sunset is likely to have been the first regular public spectacle, interpreted for forecasts and portents, perhaps with some foreboding with the sun swallowed by the night but also with a sense of pleasure and awe. Even some animals, like chimpanzees, have been observed watching particularly dramatic sunsets. Such is their visual attraction, tugging inexplicably at the animals in all of us. 

Later, sunsets became associated with romance, the warm glow reflecting on the faces of lovers. This is especially true for sunsets viewed from a west facing beach like Kuta, which is why it was established as a tourist destination in the first place. Thousands still gather there in bars at the end of every day to witness the spectacle, the sea reflecting the skies to expand the effect, while providing an uninterrupted horizon for the sun to sink into. Throw in a few retreating storm clouds, frame the view with coconut palms in silhouette, and you have yourself quite a picture. A cliché́ maybe  fodder for Instagram, postcards and amateur painters but a wonderful way to end the day and prepare for the night ahead. 

Sunsets are at their reddest and gaudiest when high concentrations of smoke and particulates are in the stratosphere. In recent years, this country has been the magnet for this phenomenon, with Borneo’s forests billowing smoke so thick that people hundreds of kilometres away can barely breathe. Elsewhere, volcanic eruptions on Lombok and East Java [and now here as well] have shot dense plumes of abrasive volcanic ash and sulphur aerosols high into the atmosphere. These have the potential to stall aircraft in mid- flight. Glass particles from the eruptions are of particular concern, their low melting point causing them to liquefy inside aircraft gas turbines, then cool and solidify again, causing all sorts of havoc. 

The impact of all this on the tourism industry has yet to be calculated, but some at least weren’t complaining about the refusal of airlines to fly, happy to endure the forced extension to their holidays, and grateful for more opportunities to sit on the beach and gaze at the blazing sunset. 



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