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A Beautiful Sunset Over The Atlantic Ocean. Wait ... what?

The "Belt of Venus" is clearly visible in this view looking east over the Atlantic Ocean.

Below: Daughter Tara poses on the beach; bronze statue of Aphrodite (Venus) depicts her

preparing to put on her cestus (breast band).

When you live on the west coast of the United States, as I did for nearly 20 years when my family lived in the Los Angeles area, you get to routinely bask in the beauty of the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean horizon. We moved to the east coast in 2003, and we often take day trips to places like Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the Atlantic Ocean also offers its own photo-worthy vistas.

On this day in late December, 2016, we were enjoying the unspoiled strand of beach in the village of Kitty Hawk, N.C., at dusk. The ensuing sunset inspired my daughter to ask that some photos be taken. I have always thought that these were particularly lovely images capturing the essence of the Outer Banks, complete with the sunset on the ocean horizon.

It wasn't until I looked at these photos again six years later that I finally noticed: Wait a minute ... sunset on the Atlantic Ocean horizon? Sunset on the EASTERN horizon? What's going on here?

A little online research indicates that it is not an unusual phenomenon, but that it doesn't occur to most people that they are seeing a sunset happening on the "wrong" horizon. The astronomy community calls it "The Belt of Venus," named for the cestus, a girdle or breast-band, of the ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite, customarily equated with the Roman goddess Venus. Here is how the phenomenon occurs, according to the website

When you look in a direction opposite to where the sun is setting, all the light from the sun is progressively being tilted more and more with respect to your observed horizon. However, some of the sun’s light still passes through the haze in the atmosphere, and it is this band of light that appears red to our vision (due to the scattering of red light) and which forms a band of rosy-hued light between Earth’s partial shadow, and the upper atmosphere. However, the band of red light is only visible because an observer’s line of sight is approximately parallel to the upper edge of Earth’s shadow.

As the Sun sinks lower behind the horizon (behind you), its light is tilted evermore upwards through the atmospheric haze, which has the practical effect that the Belt of Venus seems to lift up off the horizon, and take on a more curved appearance the higher it climbs. By the time the sun reaches a position of about 18 degrees below the horizon, though, its light is tilted so far that the band of red light is moved beyond the point where it is visible (i.e., it is moved out of the observer’s line of sight). Eventually, after about 15 minutes or so, the red light is extinguished when Earth’s shadow overtakes it as the Sun sinks even lower below the western horizon.

So there they are: The scientific and mythological explanations. To me, facts that explain beautiful phenomena are "nice to haves," akin to understanding how a bubble is formed, where the moon came from, and what causes rainbows. But the most important thing, ultimately, is to be grateful they exist and that they have given so much pleasure to us humans who have been inspired by them since our senses first allowed us to be.

1 Comment

Jan 04, 2023

Gorgeous photos Greg! Thanks for the scientific explanation of our "Eastern sunsets" over the ocean! It was described so clearly by you! Love the Outer Banks! Sue Mullar

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