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Science & Technology

Paintings shed light on Earth's atmosphere

By T.K. Randall
March 25, 2014 · Comment icon 7 comments



Sunset Glow on Mt. Tamalpais ( 1896 ) Image Credit: William Keith
Researchers have been able to piece together clues about the environment by looking at old paintings.
While to the untrained eye a sunset in an old painting might seem like little more than a fascinating work of art, to scientists these images from the past can also carry important clues indicating the state of the environment at the time they were painted.

Some of the best known examples of this concern the combination of colors used by artists in paintings with sunsets. In times associated with a known volcanic eruption for instance, sunsets in paintings appeared more red due to the ash and dust ejected in to the atmosphere.
"Nature speaks to the hearts and souls of great artists," said atmospheric physicist Christos Zerefos who co-authored the study. "But we have found that, when colouring sunsets, it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information."

By analyzing hundreds of paintings created within the last 500 years, researchers have been able to determine the state of the environment at those times as well as the quantity of volcanic aerosols present in the atmosphere.

"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," said Zerefos.

Source: Phys.org | Comments (7)


Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by SkeptcByMindBelievrByHeart 9 years ago
with so much pollution in the air for the last 200 years or so our brains perceive greens and reds has changed dramatically
Comment icon #2 Posted by Leonardo 9 years ago
Paintings are not photographs, and there is this little thing called "artistic license", which might suggest the colours used in paintings are designed to be evocative, rather than true-to-life. Using art in such a manner seems to me to be inherently unscientific and unreliable.
Comment icon #3 Posted by Dezmond 9 years ago
My thoughts exactly. But if many different artist from different places start painting more red in their skies in between a certain time period you've found a pattern. Which does tell us some information about the skies in those times. Although you can question the accuracy because most painting from different time periods are often romanticized.
Comment icon #4 Posted by thewild 9 years ago
All other scientifics aside this is a BEAUTY of a picture. Wish that I had the time and view to paint like this!
Comment icon #5 Posted by maximusnow 9 years ago
What if we used Pablo Picasso, to explian human evolution. AHH, Yes, look how we have evloved!
Comment icon #6 Posted by Sir Smoke aLot 9 years ago
I cry I mean, all them colors are just artist's way of expressing his feelings, or feelings about that environment... Ilogical.
Comment icon #7 Posted by Doug1029 9 years ago
If I were deciding which climate change studies to fund, I would probably not choose this one. One has to wonder if the things they learned were worth the investment. We still get atmospheric conditions that are as clear as some of those in the paintings, but they are under exceptional conditions. The exceptional ones are the ones people (and artists) remember and paint. So I'm wondering about sample bias. The other question is change over time: how much was there? Did they make any attempt to determine variation? So many questions. Doug


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