DUSK TO DUSK
The Stunning Beauty of Flyover Country Sunsets
Where do you go on vacation when you live in one of the top tourist destinations in the world? Flyover country, of course.
ROME — On the morning before I left Rome for my summer vacation, I drove my moped alongside the ancient Roman Colosseum. Even though I was on a banal errand, it was one of hundreds of "Roman Holiday" moments I’ve had in the more than 20 years I’ve lived and worked in the Eternal City.
It is tremendously exhilarating to navigate cobblestones, keep one’s skirt in place and try not to be distracted by one of the most amazing feats of architecture in the world — all while balancing on two wheels.
One might assume that if you live in the heart of one of the most popular tourist destinations on Earth, you are hard pressed to find an even better spot to go on vacation. But my first choice is always to go home to South Dakota (no, Fargo is in the other Dakota). And when I say this, I invariably get a raised eyebrow or a shrug and a question that not-so-subtly implies there is no running water or electricity.
Those who have not been to the “Mount Rushmore State” have surely flown over it. It is in the heart of so-called fly-over country, the carpet of patchwork fields between the coasts that the uninformed often associate with rednecks and Trump voters. Sure, like every state, we have those, too, but South Dakota has much more to offer, and at the top of the list are those amazing sunsets.
During my two week holiday, I saw a sunset worth photographing every single night. But what struck me even more than the vivid colors and magical weather patterns lit from inside and underneath, was that no one else seemed to notice. “We have them every night,” my sister reminded me. “Stop acting like a tourist.”
In fact, I recall being incredibly unimpressed by sunsets almost everywhere else in the world. My sister and I once drove across the Greek island of Santorini to see what was supposed to be the best sunset viewing terrace in the world in the town of Oia. Sure, it was nice, but it didn’t compare to the ones we saw at home. I remember being equally unimpressed on the beaches of Zanzibar and the rocky cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. Those sunsets are simply not as amazing as the ones in the Midwest.
I put the question about why these sunsets are so amazing to Dr. Stephen F. Corfidi, an associate with the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Weather Service in Oklahoma. Corfidi has written extensively about sunsets and confirmed that those in the Midwest are indeed objectively more impressive than those in Europe.
Scientifically speaking, Corfidi says that the greater concentration of relatively large particles in the lower atmosphere like those found in Europe create more “muted” low-sun skies, as seen from the ground. Though not even visible to the naked eye, these large particles, which come from pollution and factors such as trees, volcanoes and microscopic marine algae known as phytoplankton, are more densely concentrated over Europe than over the central United States.
“The central United States lies downwind of the dry, elevated terrain of the western states,” he explained. “This results in comparatively unstable thermal profiles that enables particles to mix upward through a deeper layer of the atmosphere. Also, given Europe's position immediately downstream (weather-wise) from the Atlantic, and given its location well removed from elevated, dry terrain, humidity, on average, tends to be greater there than over the central U.S.”
For this combination of reasons, he says, “Sunset colors in Europe tend to be more subdued — more pastel and less spectrally ‘pure’ — than those you might typically observe in the Dakotas.”
Weather patterns also play a significant role. “There are also more subtle reasons that sunsets in the American midwest tend to be more spectacular than those commonly seen in Rome which have to do with prevailing cloud formations,” he says. “In short, deep convective clouds tend to be more prevalent in the United States than they are in Europe… While layered clouds also can project beautiful low-sun colors, the observer has to be located in a relatively narrow zone near the upstream edge of the cloud sheet to be able to see those colors; the more widely-spaced convective clouds provide more opportunity for "catching" and viewing strongly-colored sunset hues.”
So, while living in the eternal city may be a true daily Roman holiday, there really is no place like home — in this case South Dakota — to appreciate Mother Nature’s infinite creativity.