Wednesday, April 2, 2014


British landscape artist J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) painted some spectacular sunsets, including the image above, entitled The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, Fighting Bucks. The reason the lighting in this painting is so dramatic is that the air was filled with volcanic ash and gas that had been spewed from halfway around the world in Indonesia. The Tambora volcano – the largest in recorded history – had erupted in 1815, killing 10,000 people directly and over 60,000 indirectly due to the starvation and disease that followed. The aerosol particles scattered the sunlight, producing bright red and orange sunsets in Europe for up to 3 years. Scientists have now realized that they can plumb master paintings for clues to the composition of the atmosphere in the past. A team of Greek and German researchers has just published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics the results of their analysis of hundreds of sunset paintings completed between 1500 and 2000, a period during which more then 50 large volcanic eruptions occurred around the globe. Skies more polluted by natural aerosols like ash or desert dust and modern manufactured aerosols scatter sunlight more, so the sky appears redder. The scientists measured the ratio of red to green along the horizon of each painting and discovered that it correlated with the amount of aerosols regardless of the painter or the school of painting. Atmospheric physicist and lead author Christos Zerefos of the Academy of Athens in Greece says, Nature speaks to the hearts and souls of great artists. But we have found that, when colouring sunsets, it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information.”

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