October 2 2007

Old Masters painted Global Warming

There is a great article in the Guardian newspaper (London, England) about how a team of scientists at the National Observatory in Athens is using paintings by the "old masters" to study the effects of global warming events from the 14th through the 18th century, and possibly predict the effects of future disruptions to our atmosphere. By studying the color of the skies in these paintings, it maybe possible to deduce how much particulate matter is in the atmosphere.

They are specifically looking for insight into a phenomenon called "global dimming" in which a climate changing event emits particles into the atmosphere and then serves to cool the earth for a period of time. An often cited example of this is the 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora which cause the infamous "year without a summer" that collapsed the European economy and cause widespread famine.

The eruption of Mt. Krakatoa, for instance, is claimed to have caused spectacular sunsets for several years after the event because of light interacting with particles expelled by the volcano. Their theory is that by looking at the color of sunsets (specifically the ration of colors such as red and green) painted before and after global warming events, that they can calculate the amount of material in the atmosphere at that particular time.

"We're taking advantage of the attitudes of famous painters to portray real scenes they were looking at. This is the first attempt to analyze this old art in a scientific way, and tells the story of how our climate has varied naturally in the past." - Christos Zerefos

The scientists are analyzing 554 paintings by 181 artists including JMW Turner, Rubens, Rembrant, Gainsborough, and Hogarth.

I find it fascinating that some of our greatest artwork might be a useful part of solving ancient climate mysteries and also help predict the effect of future events. It is a real credit to the old masters that their skills at observation and representation can be used in a scientific study. Where measured climatologic data is nonexistent, in a time before modern sensor technology, the skill of a few people might be enough to fill in gaps of our atmospheric history.

For more information visit the original article.

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January 25th, 2008 at 5:09 PM