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Published March 25, 2014 07:59 AM

Paintings Help Chart History of Air Pollution

An international research team has shown that the colors of sunsets painted by famous artists can be used to estimate pollution levels in the Earth's atmosphere.

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

When the Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted in 1815, painters in Europe could see the colors 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 after the eruption.

J. M. W. Turner was one of the artists who painted the stunning sunsets during that time. Now, scientists are using his, and other great masters', paintings to retrieve information on the composition of the past atmosphere.

"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 coloring sunsets, it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information."

Zerefos and his team analyzed hundreds of high-quality digital photographs of sunset paintings done between 1500 and 2000, a period including over 50 large volcanic eruptions around the globe. They were looking 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 mineral (desert dust) or man-made aerosols. Air with a higher amount of aerosols has a higher 'aerosol optical depth', a parameter the team calculated using the red-to-green ratios in the paintings.

They then compared these values with those given by independent proxies such as ice-core and volcanic-explosivity data, and found good agreement. The results obtained validate those of the team's previous study.

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Sunset painting via Shutterstock.

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