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Why wildfires are turning skies a sinister orange

Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area woke Wednesday to a world that looked like a scene from Blade Runner 2049.

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Massive wildfires in California triggered bizarre orange skies in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday.

Rachel Katz

Blue skies. Gray skies. Those are the colors we most commonly associate with our atmosphere. On Wednesday, things went wonky for the San Francisco Bay Area when the skies turned a freaky, disorienting shade of orange that made morning and afternoon seem like night.

The disturbing color shift was due to a plague of ongoing wildfires in California. Residents have been sharing photos on social media that look like they could have been taken on the set of Blade Runner 2049

While it looked like the apocalypse had arrived, the National Weather Service offered a scientific explanation for the phenomenon. The NWS Bay Area office tweeted a satellite image of a thick layer of smoke over California and wrote, "This smoke is filtering the incoming energy from the sun, causing much cooler temperatures and dark, dreary red-shifted skies across many areas."

NASA went into more detail on this type of occurrence while explaining red-tinted sunsets triggered by Siberian fires back in 2015. "The smoke particles from the fires allow sunlight's longer wavelength colors like red and orange to get through while blocking the shorter wavelengths of yellow, blue and green," the space agency said.

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This image of Berkeley, California from Sept. 9 shows the sky tinted a spooky orange due to wildfire smoke.

Andrew Morse/CNET

The San Francisco International Airport shared an eerie view of its control tower, but said the air quality was not affecting air traffic as of Wednesday morning.

San Francisco branding consultant David Gartner suggested a new Pantone color of the year: End of Days Orange. 

The smoke was so thick, it blotted out the sun, and some residents reported a layer of ash on outside objects. The Bay Area Air District air quality agency also called out strong winds that have been transporting ash from Northern California fires toward the state's coast.

"If smoke becomes too thick in a certain area, most of the light will be scattered and absorbed before reaching the surface, which may cause dark skies," Bay Area Air District tweeted

NASA and NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite has been tracking the spread of smoke from western wildfires and spotted aerosols reaching far across the US to the east. 

Relief may not arrive for some time. Cal Fire, the California's wildfire response agency, reported on Wednesday that 14,000 firefighters were battling 28 major fires statewide. 

In a time of pandemic and natural disasters, orange skies are just one more sign 2020 is a year to be reckoned with.