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Clouds Like Blood: How a 19th-Century Volcano Changed the Color of Sunsets

Illustration by William Ascroft from "The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena" (1888) (via Houghton Library at Harvard University)
Illustration by William Ascroft from “The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena” (1888) (via Houghton Library at Harvard University)

The eruption of Krakatoa on August 26–27, 1883, completely collapsed its Indonesian island, blasting the stratosphere with volcanic dust and sulphur dioxide. A catastrophe of incredible scale for anyone in its radius, the natural disaster impacted the entire world with skies suddenly changed, particularly the sunsets which many reported as having altered, otherworldly colors.

An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa (Parker & Coward, Britain, via Wikimedia)
An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa (Parker & Coward, Britain, via Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

Artists were among those mesmerized by the Krakatoa sunsets, and captured them on canvas with vibrant detail then impossible for photography. In November, New York’s American Museum of Natural History opened Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters, created by the Field Museum in Chicago with new artifacts from the AMNH. The exhibition centers on earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, and hurricanes (don’t miss the impressive video map recreating the rising waters of Hurricane Sandy in New York). Alongside the section on volcanoes, showing the devastation of eruptions like Mount Pelée‘s in 1902, which annihilated a town, and the chance for visitors to build a virtual volcano, is the inclusion of Krakatoa and its sunsets. In particular, Nature’s Fury highlights Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” stating that its angry red skies are now thought “to reflect the eerie twilights seen in Norway for months after Krakatoa’s eruption.”

'Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters' at the American Museum of Natural History
‘Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters’ at the American Museum of Natural History (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)
Edvard Munch, "The Scream" (1893) (National Gallery, Oslo, via Wikimedia)
Edvard Munch, “The Scream” (1893) (National Gallery, Oslo, via Wikimedia)

Four years following Krakatoa’s eruption, the Earth was oddly cold, something scientists later found was sulfur dioxide in the high atmosphere reacting with water vapor, making very fine particles of sulphuric acid. These aerosols reflected back some sunlight, and also created the strange sunsets.

Munch described the sunset he witnessed after Krakatoa:

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.

It haunted him, and finally in 1893 he painted it as he remembered. However, there was another artist who made hundreds of paintings of the post-volcano sunsets while they happened. In “The Krakatoa Sunsets,” part of the recently published The Public Domain Review: Selected Essays, 2011-2013, Richard Hamblyn writes “by late October 1883 most of the world, including Britain, was being subjected to lurid evening displays, caused by the scattering of incoming light by the meandering volcanic haze.” British artist William Ascroft, from his vantage on the Thames in Chelsea, painted pastel after pastel sunset until they faded in 1886. While not as well known as Munch, Ascroft left a blazing climatological archive of the skies.

Krakatoa was unusually cataclysmic, with the loudest noise ever made by Earth, heard up to 3,000 miles away (consider hearing a noise in New York made in Los Angeles). At least 36,000 people were killed. But it’s not the only volcano to have influenced sunsets in art. An analysis last year of over 300 works from the Tate and National Gallery in London covered 50 volcanic explosions and the skies after, potentially to compare to modern aerosol pollution. These volcano “afterglows” were visual oddities, alluring to artists, that are now a form of scientific record, and reminders of the power of the Earth.

Illustration by William Ascroft from "The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena" (1888) (via Houghton Library at Harvard University)
Illustration by William Ascroft from “The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena” (1888) (via Houghton Library at Harvard University)
Illustrations by William Ascroft from "The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena" (1888) (via Houghton Library at Harvard University)
Illustrations by William Ascroft from “The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena” (1888) (via Houghton Library at Harvard University)
'Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters' at the American Museum of Natural History
‘Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters’ at the American Museum of Natural History (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters continues at the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street, Upper West Side) through August 9. 

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