Field of Science

Ancient Stories Provided An Early Warning About Potential Seattle Earthquakes

Oral tradition played – and still plays – an important role in many societies. The subjects of these stories range from fantastic fairy tales to myths, tales based on real persons, places or historic events. But interestingly enough, these stories may also represent attempts to record and transfer knowledge of past geological catastrophes as a warning from generation to generation. Read On...

How Volcanic Eruptions Inspired Artists

As diplomat in France, from 1776-1785, Benjamin Franklin noted in 1783 a strange, grey-bluish mist covering the sky above Europe. Franklin speculated that the cloud was some sort of volcanic dust, may transported from the wind from the Katla, famous Icelandic volcano,  to the European mainland. In fact in June 1783 the Laki on Iceland had erupted, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in historic times with worldwide effects on earth´s atmosphere, climate and history. 

But volcanic dust also influenced art and poetry.

A surprisingly colourful sunset inspired Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) to his famous painting “The Scream”. A distorted figure seems to be petrified screaming in pain, the red background reinforces the despair and agony. Munch himself noted:

"I was walking along the road with two friends - then the Sun set - all at once the sky became  blood red - and I felt overcome with melancholy.  I stood still and leaned against the railing,  dead tired - clouds like blood and tongues of  fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature."

Exceptional sunsets were observed above Oslo and in many other cities worldwide in the years 1885-92. The New York Times reports on November 28, 1883:

"Soon after 5 o’clock the western horizon suddenly flamed into a brilliant scarlet, which crimsoned sky and clouds. People in
the streets were startled at the unwonted sight and gathered in little groups on all the corners to gaze into the west.  Many thought that a great fire was in progress
....People were standing on their steps and gazing from their windows as well as from the streets to wonder at the unusual sight. The clouds gradually deepened to a bloody red hue,  and a sanguinary flush was on the sea…

Fig.1. Sunset seen in London in the year 1883, from SYMONS, G.J. (1888): The Eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena.

The red-glowing sunsets were caused by volcanic ash, dispersed in the higher atmospheric layers the fine particles scattered the sunlight especially effective during sunset.

August 1883 the volcanic island of Krakatoa in Indonesia had annihilated itself in a gigantic eruption. Ash, volcanic dust and gases were send in the higher atmospheric layers, high above clouds and rain the particles would stay for years there, inspiring artists and poets, like English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892):

"Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurl’d so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve...
The wrathful sunset glared..."

Munch however was not the first painter to be inspired by the range of sky-colors caused by a volcanic eruption. Famous English landscape painter William S. Turner (1775-1851) was so impressed by the sunsets in the years 1815-16 that he produced an entire series of paintings, showing the changes observed in the sky for almost one year (Turner will also go on painting more volcano-related paintings). 
In April 1815 the Tambora, also on Indonesia, had erupted, the largest volcanic eruptions in modern times. Also here volcanic particles and dust were injected in the stable stratosphere, scattering for years to come the sunlight and painting the sky in wonderful reddish, orange, bluish-violett colors, an inspiring and haunting view.


OLSON, D.; DOESCHER, R. & OLSON, M. (2004): When The Sky Ran Red - The Story Behind The Scream. Sky & Telescope, February: 28-35