Red Sky at Night

A quick snippet from the latest edition of Current Archaeology:

“Our own record on pollution in the past has left a mark in an unexpected place: a team of scientists has been studying Turner’s paintings for evidence of man-made pollution in the 19th century and of the impact of major volcanic eruptions. Turner’s watercolours are especially helpful because he sketched the vivid sunsets that resulted from atmospheric dirt and dust with remarkable precision. By studying his work, scientists have identified the years 1813, 1831 and 1835 as periods when the skies were reddest as a result of pollution.”

Reference: Catling, C. 2007. Turner’s red skies. Current Archaeology 214: 8


4 responses to “Red Sky at Night

  1. Thanks, I’ll have to look that one out. Monet has also been used in examining pollution in London.

  2. I have to admit that the methodology involved there gives me the heebie-jeebies. If Turner or Monet were cameras, then fine. But what if they decided to mess with colour to add mood or nuance to their pictures? Particularly with Turner’s works (I don’t know Monet so well) he wasn’t often at the scene so they’re imaginative reconstructions anyway! How can this be seriously considered evidential for climate?

  3. I would agree that the method is a little subjective. As you say, the artists were attempting to create a particular image, and they may have taken artistic license. However, I think it’s interesting nonetheless, as long as we accept that that artistic license might exist.

  4. It goes back farther than Turner. In the Bible, Jesus said, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.” (Matthew 16:2) — so red skies have been with us for a while.

    Given that burning off the pampas in Argentina, which happens every year, puts about twice the particulate matter into the atmosphere of the explosion of Mount St. Helen, it’s clear that it doesn’t take major technology to create pollution. Conversely, having watched an equatorial sky turn bright red during “afterglow” in an area of Australia far from any city suggests that not all color can be blamed on pollution. The wind blows, we get dust in the air.

    I think the record of pollution in Turner’s time was more vividly recorded in diaries and stories of the time that describe the filth on the streets and the smoke from coal-burning stoves pouring out of chimneys. But that goes back farther than the 1800s. Most of the great chefs of Europe died from the lung diseases that arose from breathing the soot from their cooking fires.

    As for subjectivity, while color may be artistic, ice isn’t, and it was from the paintings of Dutch and English artists that scientists discovered how recently the last mini-ice age occurred.

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