Thursday, July 31, 2014

"The Red Skies" of 1883

"It is impossible not to conjecture a connection with the volcanic eruption in the Sunda Straits, by which, on Aug. 26, the island of Krakatoa disappeared wholly from the face of the earth."
"The terrible nature of this outburst can hardly be realized: the sky was darkened for several days, the noise was heard two thousand miles, magnetic disturbances were noted, the tidal wave was distinctly felt at San Francisco, and the atmospheric disturbance was sufficient to cause marked barometric fluctuations, which were noted by the barographs on the continent, in England and America, for several succeeding days."
- W. Upton, "The Red Skies." Science, 11 January 1884

During the fall of 1883 there was a remarkable atmospheric phenomenon which "attracted great attention not only from the general public, but from scientific men, who have endeavored to give a satisfactory explanation of it." At the time that he wrote those words Winslow Upton had just accepted the position of Professor of Astronomy at Brown University. Prior to this he had been Assistant Professor of Meteorology in the U.S. Signal Service from 1881. The phenomena that he endeavored to explain were the "recent fiery sunsets" seen throughout the world.

The Scream by Edvar Munch
The Scream (1893) by Edvar Munch
(National Gallery, Oslo, Norway)
There were three different hypotheses as to the cause of the "blaze of brilliant red light" seen at sunset. One possibility was refraction through water vapor in the atmosphere. Another suggestion was that the Earth was passing through a cloud of meteoric dust. But the most likely explanation, as improbable as it sounded at the time, was that a large amount of dust from the eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa had been thrown up to such a height that it slowly spread around the globe. Microscopic examinations of residue from snow in Madrid and a rain-storm in Holland seemed to confirm the volcanic hypothesis by revealing the presence of particles that were similar in composition to the ash from Indonesia.

The sight of the blood red sky seen at sunset may even have inspired the Norwegian artist Edvar Munch who "felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature."

Note: I originally published this on the Ladd Observatory Weather Underground blog in 2011.

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