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Shout-out for famous painting at EGU meeting

by Liz Kalaugher

According to psychologists, the vivid orange, red and turquoise sky in Munch’s famous Scream painting of the late 19th and early 20th century may represent his emotional state. But meteorologists argued that it depicted a colourful sunset caused by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Now a team from Norway has proposed that rather than painting the results of volcanic ash, Munch was inspired by unusual “mother-of-pearl” clouds high up in the stratosphere.


“We are natural scientists so we tend to look for answers in nature whilst the psychologists have looked for inner torment,” said Helene Muri of the University of Oslo, speaking on behalf of meteorological consultant Svein Fikke at a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.

These “mother-of-pearl” clouds, otherwise known as nacreous clouds or polar stratospheric clouds type II, form when the stratosphere is both unusually cold (-85°C compared to its average of -60°C) and humid. Such conditions typically occur in high latitudes during the winter, often near mountains. The clouds contain small ice crystals – about 1 micron across – and sit at 20-30 km, well above the heights clouds normally form. They often have a wavy appearance because of the lee-waves behind mountain ranges.

Mother-of-pearl clouds are too thin to be visible during the day but appear around half an hour after sunset or before dawn, when the sun shines onto them at a low angle. Their sudden appearance in a dark sky and their changing colours can be striking, particularly if you don’t know about the phenomenon. Munch wrote in a poem in his diary between 1890 and 1892, “I went along the road with two friends – the sun set…The sky suddenly became bloodish red….watched over the flaming clouds as blood and sword….I felt this big infinite scream through nature”.

Fikke observed such clouds above Oslo in December 2014 and noticed their similarity to the sky in the 1910 version of The Scream. He and colleagues Øyvind Nordli of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the late Jón Egill Kristjánsson of the University of Oslo believed that Munch painted mother-of-pearl clouds rather than a volcanic-ash-enhanced sunset because colourful sunsets caused by volcanoes have a stratified appearance and don’t exhibit wavy lines. What’s more, volcanoes tend to produce frequent colourful sunsets over a couple of years whereas Munch’s diary indicates that his experience was a one-off.

Muri, an Oslo resident for around 25 years, has seen mother-of-pearl clouds only once. But the phenomenon was definitely seen in the Oslo area on the right timescale for Munch – physicist Fredrik Carl Stőrmer documented its appearance in January 1890, when he was just 16, making detailing drawings of the clouds’ shapes and colours. “They are so beautiful you could believe you were in another world,” Stőrmer wrote when he published his observations 42 years later. Munch painted four versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910.

Fikke and colleagues published their results today in the journal Weather. An EGU session this morning was dedicated to Kristjánsson’s memory.





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