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Could 200-Year-Old Oil Paintings Hold The Keys To Climate Change?
March 25, 2014
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J.M.W. Turner's "The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, a Stag Drinking" from 1829 shows a remarkably bright sunset, possibly the result of volcanic ash in the air. (Photo: Tate Modern)

The secret to climate change might be in oil paintings, at least according to Christos Zerefos, an atmospheric  researcher at the Academy of Athens in Greece.

Zeferos pays particular attention to the works of English painter J.M.W. Turner and his contemporaries, whose hazy landscapes might reflect something that was happening in the atmosphere at the time of their painting. In a new study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics this week, Zeferos and his colleagues argue that the scenes are the result of volcanic air pollution.

The researchers studied 554 works depicting sunsets that were painted between 1500 and 2000, during which time more than 80 major volcanic eruptions ocurred. The ash and sulfates lingering in the air — especially after the Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted in 1815 — are said to have resulted in particularly bright sunsets across Europe. These sunsets, the team argues, were depicted in paintings as exceedingly bright, with lots of red and orange hues. 

“Nature speaks to the hearts and souls of great artists," said Zeferos. "But we have found that, when colouring sunsets, it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information. 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.”

The findings are interesting from a climate change perspective, since aerosols from volcanic eruptions can significantly impact climate (they tend to cool it — an effect that can last for years after an eruption). This can help researchers determine what was happening to the climate in eras that didn't have sophisticated technology to record these events and their impact. Researchers are effectively using these oil paintings to stand in for detailed environmental records that didn't exist a few hundred years ago, which in turn can help scientists better examine the effects of man-made aerosol pollution over the past 50 years. 

“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 Zeferos. 

Strombo.com spoke to two Canadian climate change experts, both of whom lauded the study in general.

"I think the study is creative," said Randall Martin, Professor of Chemistry at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "We have very little historical information on the prior concentrations of aerosols in the atmosphere. This study helps by giving us a record of the past."

Still, Paul Myers, Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, told Strombo.com he was skeptical about using art to analyse scientific trends. 

"I guess this would be the biggest question for me: how much is what the artists truly observes versus artistic license. Never mind if they are just observing different local conditions on the day they painted versus some big global signal," Myers.

"So I guess I would say it is a fun application of science, even if it may not add a lot to our global knowledge of climate on its own."

Via Atlantic Cities

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