Famous Paintings By The Masters Are Giving Up Clues To The Earth's Past Pollution

The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, Fighting Bucks (c. 1829) was one of the paintings by J. M. W. Turner analysed to study the past atmosphere.

Colours of sunsets painted by famous artists can be used to estimate pollution levels in the Earth’s past atmosphere.

The paintings reveal that ash and gas released during major volcanic eruptions scatter the different colours of sunlight, making sunsets appear more red.

The results are published today in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

When the Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted in 1815 painters in Europe could see the colours of the sky changing.

The volcanic ash and gas spewed into the atmosphere travelled the world and, as these aerosol particles scattered sunlight, they produced bright red and orange sunsets in Europe for up to three years.

Landscape artist J. M. W. Turner painted the stunning sunsets during that time. Now scientists are using his and other masters’ paintings to retrieve information on the composition of the atmosphere in the past.

“Nature speaks to the hearts and souls of great artists,” says lead author Christos Zerefos, a professor of atmospheric physics at the Academy of Athens in Greece.

“But we have found that, when colouring sunsets, it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information.”

Zerefos and his team analysed hundreds of high-quality digital photographs of sunset paintings done between 1500 and 2000, a period including more than 50 large volcanic eruptions around the globe.

They wanted to find out whether the relative amounts of red and green along the horizon of each painting could provide information on the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere.

“We found that red-to-green ratios measured in the sunsets of paintings by great masters correlate well with the amount of volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere, regardless of the painters and of the school of painting,” says Zerefos.

Skies more polluted by volcanic ash scatter sunlight more, so they appear more red. Similar effects are seen with desert dust or man-made aerosols.

The researchers also asked a famous colourist to paint sunsets during and after the passage of a Saharan dust cloud over the island of Hydra in June 2010. The painter was not aware of the dust event.

The scientists then compared measurements of the aerosol optical depth made by modern instruments with those estimated from the red-to-green ratios of the paintings and of digital photograph, and found that they all matched.

“We wanted to provide alternative ways of exploiting the environmental information in the past atmosphere in places where, and in centuries when, instrumental measurements were not available,” says Zerefos.

The top image shows digitally compressed paintings produced by colorist P. Tetsis at the island of Hydra in June 2010 during and after the passage of a Saharan dust cloud. The painting on the left features a more aerosol-rich scene (more dust in the atmosphere) than the one on the right. The bottom images show digital camera photos of the landscape. The pictures shown were taken half-way through the painting process.

Credit: P. Tetsis (paintings) and C. Zerefos (photos)

NOW WATCH: Briefing videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.