Sunset Paintings May Shed New Light on Climate Change

Kate Schuman in London
Associated Press
November 29, 2007

Vivid sunsets painted by the early 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner, who is known for his use of color and light, could help global warming experts track and predict climate change?

A group of scientists studied the colors in more than 500 paintings of sunsets, including many of Turner's 19th-century watercolors and oils, hoping to gain greater insight into the effect of volcanic eruptions on global temperatures.

Particles thrown into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions are known to cause a global cooling effect by reflecting back sunlight.

By better understanding past changes in climate, the team hopes to improve computer models for future climate change.

Christos Zerefos, who led the research at the National Observatory in Athens, Greece, said he believed it was the first scientific study of art for clues to climate variations.

The scientists studied works painted around the times of major volcanic eruptions, such as the cataclysmic explosion of Mount Krakatau (Krakatoa) in 1883, to measure how much pollution was pumped into the skies.

Contemporary accounts describe brilliant sunsets after Krakatau erupted.

(Related story: "Child of Krakatau" Roaring to Life (November 9, 2007)

"The initial idea arose from the fact that we saw an increased reddening of colors in sunsets which followed large volcanic eruptions, particularly Krakatoa," Zerefos said.

By measuring the amount of red and green in the paintings, the scientists aimed to calculate the amount of dust in the atmosphere. The greater the pollution, the redder the sunset, Zerefos said.

Same Sunset, Different Eyes?

Kevin Trenberth heads the Climate Analysis Research Center at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and was not connected to the study. He warned that artists and scientists do not necessarily see sunsets the same way.

Continued on Next Page >>


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