60-Second Science

Paintings of Sunsets Shed Light on Past Air Quality

Master artists' sunset colors are good sources of information about amounts of particulates in the atmosphere when the image was painted. Sophie Bushwick reports


A volcanic eruption hurls ash particles and gas high into the sky. Once airborne, these substances circle the globe, scattering sunlight more and giving sunsets a redder color. The effect only lasts for a few years—but paintings by gifted artists can preserve it for centuries. And give us clues about past air quality.
Between the years 1500 and 2000, some 50 major volcanic eruptions occurred all over the world. Meanwhile, artists painted thousands of sunsets.
To see if such paintings could reveal atmospheric info, researchers analyzed high-quality digital photos of the art for the balance of red and green colors along the horizon. Based on the red-green ratio, they calculated the amount of particles in the atmosphere.
These numbers indeed corresponded with recent volcanic eruptions. And they also reflected an increase in airborne particles after the industrial revolution. The research is in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. [C. S. Zerefos et al, Further evidence of important environmental information content in red-to-green ratios as depicted in paintings by great masters]
For much of human history, we had no instruments to measure air quality. But this study shows that great painters may shed light on past pollution.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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