Beautiful Sunsets (and Sunrises) in Art


Many people have, over the years, told me that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But no one ever told me that I shouldn’t judge a sunset (or sunrise) by its beauty. After all these years, a group of scientists finally to pulled the curtain off of the golden lights of dawn and dusk.

On March 25, the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics journal published an article that addresses pollution in art. Soon I’ll talk about that, but first a bit about the Arctic.

It was a cold November evening, in 2011. I was at a dinner gathering at the home of Peter and Helen Goddard. At the time, Peter Goddard was the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The evening guest of honor was Robbert Dijkgraaf, the current director of IAS. I was engaged in a conversation about—pollution in art—with art historians Christopher Wood of Yale University and Nicola Suthor of Freie Universität in Berlin. The question we were trying to figure out is this: Does a red sunset always mean that there is pollution in the air? The eminent theoretical physicist Peter Goddard stood there in silence, listening to our conversation. Perhaps he was curious about how a group of art folks would go about resolving a physics question. Even though I was “Once a physicist” and had an opinion on the subject, we art folks didn’t conclusively resolve the question that evening.

At the time I was a director’s visitor at the Institute, working on the anthology, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press, 2013). Here is an excerpt from my introduction in the anthology, “From Kolkata to Kaktovik” that directly relates to that November conversation.

There is a kind of Arctic pollution that a photo helped me to understand. Upon seeing one of my photographs people have asked, “Are these colors real or manipulated?” The photograph in question is of a group of musk oxen on the Canning River Delta that I had taken in early May 2001, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (see here). The temperature was about minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit; deep haze severely restricted visibility, as I lay flat on my belly with the lens touching snow to make the animals visible, barely. Indeed, I began to wonder how could there be such vibrant colors in an environment that is supposed to be free of pollution? I remember from my childhood many colorful sunrises and sunsets in Kolkata, where pollution in the air was all around us; it still is. There had to be particulates in the air to create those deep red-orange colors in the musk oxen photo, and I surmised that the source of the pollution was perhaps the nearby oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, but on probing further I also came to know about the Arctic haze that a handful of scientists have been studying. I don’t know if what you see in the photo is indeed Arctic haze or pollution from Prudhoe Bay, but, nevertheless, a fact sheet states:

“Arctic haze is a thin, persistent, brown haze that causes limited visibility on the horizons of what had been previously very clear Arctic skies. It is most visible in the early spring and can be seen from northern Greenland, the Arctic coasts of Canada and Alaska and occasionally in eastern Siberia. … The Arctic haze that accumulates by late winter, trapped under the dome of cold air, is as large as the continent of Africa! … Arctic haze is made up of a complex mix of microscopic particles and acidifying pollutants such as soot, hydrocarbons, and sulfates. Up to 90% of Arctic haze consists of sulfates. … We can find out where Arctic haze comes from because the chemicals that make up Arctic haze are like a footprint that can lead us back to their sources. The main sources of the sulfates found in Arctic haze are things like power plants, pulp and paper mills, and oil and gas activities. The other pollutants found in Arctic haze can be traced to industries such as vehicles, shipping and agriculture. The places in which these industries occur and where these pollutants thus originate are in the heavily populated and industrialized areas of Europe, North America and Asia.”

The question is: What is the long-term stress acidification from Arctic haze might put on the fragile Arctic ecology? While we don’t know this yet, the haze might also be contributing to the rapid polar melt: “Industry, transportation, and biomass burning in North America, Europe, and Asia are emitting trace gases and tiny airborne particles that are polluting the polar region, forming an ‘Arctic Haze’ every winter and spring. Scientists suspect these pollutants are speeding up the polar melt.”

Lindsey Konkel has written a wonderful article, “Old Masters’ Paintings Hide Clues to a Past Climate” in Climate Central’s The Daily Climate, to bring attention to the study by the German and Greek scholars. Her lucid prose makes their academic paper more accessible for the larger public.

The researchers have “analyzed 124 sunsets painted by European artists between 1500 and 2000.” Apparently during this period there was fifty large volcanic eruptions, and the scholars found that “reddish hues in sunsets spiked during periods of volcanic activity.”

The red, and other warm colors, during dawn and dusk, arise from scattering of light from particulates, called aerosols, in the atmosphere. Aerosols can come from varieties of natural and anthropogenic sources, including volcanic eruptions, forest fires, dust storms, agricultural burning, natural gas flares, soot from vehicles and coal-fired power plants, and burning of trash.

“Paintings may provide reliable estimates on aerosols in the atmosphere at times before instrumental measurements,” Christos Zerefos, the lead author of the study and professor of atmospheric physics at the Academy of Athens in Greece, wrote in an email to Konkel. This is an important affirmation that art can provide valuable information for scientific analysis.

The team analyzed the “sunsets painted by famous artists as proxy information for the aerosol optical depth (AOD).” The data gathered from this analysis “significantly correlated with independent proxies from stratospheric AOD and optical extinction data, the dust veil index, and ice core volcanic indices.” The researchers concluded that the “increase of AOD at 550 nm calculated from the paintings grows from 0.15 in the middle 19th century to about 0.20 by the end of the 20th century.”

Scientists have been using plant stomata as a proxy to build a picture of the paleoclimate that goes back tens of millions of years. In a similar way, by using historic paintings as a proxy, the scholars in Europe maybe building a picture of, not only aerosols in the atmosphere during volcanic eruptions, but also a portrait (of pollution) of the industrial human.

Konkel points out that according to the researchers, “the deeper the red in the painting, the more pollution in the sky at the time.”

The red and orange colors in paintings, such as Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Red Sky and Crescent Moon, circa 1818, and Casper David Friedrich’s Woman before the Rising Sun (Woman before the Setting Sun), circa 1818, can likely be linked to the 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Tambora volcano. “That eruption scattered particles high into the atmosphere that produced bright red and orange sunsets throughout Europe for three years,” Konkel writes. These paintings provided a clue to past atmospheric pollution due to volcanic eruptions.

Furthermore, the team also found that “depictions of sunsets have gotten redder from the Industrial Revolution onwards, even during periods of no volcanic activity,” Konkel writes. “Artists, they suggest, are inadvertently capturing increases in pollution during the past 150 years.”

In the muskoxen photo, I too had inadvertently captured the increase in pollution, in the far North.

Aerosols, natural (volcanic eruption) and anthropogenic (Atmospheric Brown Cloud over Asia), are known to cool the earth temporarily, by reflecting back part of the incoming solar radiation. The anthropogenic aerosols that contain black carbon (Arctic Haze and the Atmospheric Brown Cloud), however, can have significant warming effect.

Irrespective of its impact on the climate, anthropogenic aerosols from coal-fired power plants, natural gas flaring, and other industrial sources have very significant health impacts.

“In India alone, about two million people die each year from conditions associated with atmospheric pollution,” according to a 2002 UNEP report, Asian Brown Cloud: Climate and Other Environmental Impacts.

Furthermore, Iñupiaq cultural activist Rosemary Ahtuangaruak wrote in her testimony in the Arctic Voices anthology that in her community, Nuiqsut, in Arctic Alaska, between 1986 and 1997 there was “a 600 percent increase in respiratory patients in a village of 400 people.” As a community health aide, she was able to analyze the cause:

“What was contributing to this increase in respiratory illnesses? The most overwhelming issue was that oil development around Nuiqsut had increased, and had gotten closer. The worst nights on call were nights when many natural gas flares occurred. Those flares release particles that traveled to us. Increased concentrations of particulate matter from flares occur during inversions, a bowl—like trap, with cold air trapped by warm air.”

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released the “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability | Summary for Policy Makers” report.

I don’t want to overstate the significance of art in addressing the Himalaya of environmental injuries that surround us today. I do want to point out, however, that while scientists have been telling us about earth’s climate in the deep past, and into the distant future, artists on the other hand, have been bearing witness, in the present. They always have.


Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, and activist. His most recent book is Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press). He was recently Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham University in New York, received Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Mexico State University, and Cultural Freedom Award from Lannan Foundation. For more information visit his website www.subhankarbanerjee.org.

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