Forecasting Beauty

SunsetWx, a sunrise and sunset forecasting tool developed by Penn State meteorology alumni Jacob DeFlitch and Ben Reppert, and current student, Steve Hallett, will be featured on the network's most popular shows.

As a student photographer working for Penn State, Jacob DeFlitch (photo featured above) saw firsthand how difficult it could be to find a good sunset or sunrise.

“I would regularly take photos of buildings and sites around campus like Beaver Stadium, Old Main and the Nittany Lion Shrine. I would always do my best to get out for sunset photos, but it was sometimes frustrating when it was too cloudy or too clear, and there was no sunset,” said DeFlitch, a native of North Huntingdon.

DeFlitch, who graduated in May 2015 with a bachelor of science in meteorology and is now a graduate student at Oklahoma State University, had the idea to create a model that would predict just how vivid a sunset would be — much like models used to predict precipitation or temperature. He partnered with two friends — Ben Reppert, who also graduated with a bachelor of science in meteorology in 2015 and is now a research assistant with the Department of Meteorology, and Stephen Hallett, a junior majoring in meteorology with a knack for computer programming — to make that model a reality.

After collaborating for months, the trio debuted their new product SunsetWx. It’s a free online tool to help photographers and anyone else looking for a nice-looking sunrise or sunset.

What Makes a Beautiful Sunrise or Sunset?

Sunrises and sunsets are complicated phenomena, and the sky has to have the right balance of meteorological factors to result in bright purples, reds and pinks instead of a dull blue.

“You can have a lot of high clouds, but if you have low clouds, that just takes away from the quality of the sunset. It also matters how thick your high clouds are. If you have a continuous deck of clouds, no light is going to get through. But if you have thin clouds like cirrus wisps, that’s one thing that goes into making a good sunset,” said Hallett, who is from Delaware County, outside of Philadelphia.

To figure out which of the hundreds of possible meteorological data were relevant factors to predict sunsets, the trio tapped into their knowledge of meteorology gained through courses at Penn State.

“Jake and I took an upper-level course on atmospheric radiation during our junior year, and the concepts we learned there had a lot of applicability to this project,” said Reppert, who hails from Bethlehem. “We also took a synoptic meteorology course that looks at the big picture of forecasting, which we needed to do to predict sunsets. When you have a strong cold front clearing half the country, there’s a good chance it will result in a nice sunset for a lot of people.”

They identified more than 20 relevant factors in all, with moisture, pressure and cloud cover serving as the core of the algorithm on which SunsetWx runs.

Once they knew the important factors, they had to create a way to collect the data in real time and manipulate it into a user-friendly format. This is where Hallett’s experience with computer programming came into play. A few years earlier, Hallett began learning a computer language called Grid Analysis and Display System (GrADS), which provides a way to create visualizations, such as maps, of meteorological data.

map visualization of the sunset vividness prediction

SunriseWx screenshot - Sunset Model

Example of a sunset prediction generated by the SunsetWx algorithm and website. Warm colors correspond with likeliness of vivid sunsets in a given area. 

Image: SunsetWx.com

"When I first saw an image created with GrADS, it created a visualization that I didn’t know how to create on my own, and it was very visually appealing. It let me quickly see what was going on in the atmosphere, so I thought, ‘Okay, let’s see if I can recreate that.'" 

—Steve Hallett, junior meteorology major

Hallett emailed Ryan Maue, who works on weather models with the company WeatherBell, and Maue showed Hallett how to get data and convert it into a format that GrADS could read. After learning and practicing advanced GrADS techniques, Hallett developed an algorithm that would pull in data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Next, the team had to create a website that would let users easily view the sunrise and sunset prediction data in real time. To do this, DeFlitch, Reppert and Hallett contacted one of Hallett’s friends, Justin Lowery, a graphic and Web design student at the Art Institute of Charlotte, who was “heavily experienced with the Linux operating system,” said Hallett. Lowery helped manipulate data through the SunsetWx website servers so that the website could display real-time and location-specific information.

“It’s our hope that this tool will help people get out and enjoy beauty of nature around us,” said DeFlitch. “There are many useful and important weather models focused on storms and other potentially unsettling weather phenomena. We wanted to create something that the public could use on an everyday basis and enjoy.”

Bright Beginnings

SunsetWx made headlines in 2015, just days into its website launch when it successfully predicted a brilliant sunset along much of the densely populated East Coast. What followed was a Twitter storm of gorgeous sunsets that propelled SunsetWx into the national spotlight. The meteorologists were interviewed by media outlets including CBS This Morning, Slate, Fox News and The Washington Post.

As they continue refining their work, Reppert, Lowery, Hallett and DeFlitch have all experienced a sense of fulfillment as they applied their knowledge to make a useful tool for the general public.

SunsetWx sunrise visualization model

SunsetWx screenshot - Sunrise model

Example of one of the sunrise prediction maps from the SunsetWx website. Warm colors correspond to the likeliness that people can see a vivid sunrise in a given area.

Image: SunsetWx.com

"People can easily find forecasts for the next day’s weather, but something like SunsetWx hasn’t existed before. We’ve been able to combine the knowledge of how meteorology and the weather work to figure out what makes a good sunset. Being able to give that product to people is something we can be proud of." —Ben Reppert '15, research assistant, Meteorology and Atmospheric Science Department

New Horizons

The Weather Channel, one of the world’s foremost providers of weather information, has partnered with SunsetWx and will feature its exclusive forecasting methodology on two of the network’s popular shows, AMHQ and Weather Underground. Additionally, forecasts may also appear on Local Now, providing viewers with a more hyper-local forecast.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with SunsetWx to provide customized sunset and sunrise forecasts for our AMHQ viewers.” said Nora Zimmett, senior vice president of programming for The Weather Channel. “Sunrises and sunsets are some of the most beautiful and moving experiences in nature, and this unique product will give our viewers the information they need to observe that perfect sunrise or sunset.”

“Our company is excited to be partnered with The Weather Channel, a staple in the weather industry,” DeFlitch said. “Since our inception, we have been operating with the goal to provide a practical and accurate service that everyone can use and relate to. We are thrilled that The Weather Channel recognizes the uniqueness and the value in our product.”

As the company continues to grow, it’s exploring a few areas to expand the forecast’s reach. The next big step is the release of a mobile-phone application.

Leveraging the Penn State Network

The founders said a connection with Penn State alumna Jen Carfagno, an on-camera meteorologist with The Weather Channel, helped bridge the gap from University Park to Atlanta, The Weather Channel’s headquarters.

So did the team's experiences at Penn State.

"Penn State helped lay the foundation for SunsetWx, from both the scientific and business aspects,” said Reppert. “The education we received through the department was second-to-none, providing us with a firm, accurate base for our work. And the University’s promotion of creativity and entrepreneurship was also tremendous. Through Happy Valley Launchbox, we furthered our knowledge regarding the necessities of creating and sustaining a successful business. Then our extensive alumni base helped us to take SunsetWx worldwide.”