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They're called nacreous clouds and it all has scientists talking.

'The Scream' may have been inspired by strange, rare clouds


Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Saturday, April 29, 2017, 2:10 PM - It's one of the world's most famous paintings, colourful, enigmatic and unsettling.

One of the mysteries of 'The Scream,' the masterpiece of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, is just what the anguished figure it depicts is actually screaming about, with the sky a reflection of whatever they are going through.

However, the vibrant red of the sky might not actually be artistic license, according to a new paper published in the journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. 

Rather, there's evidence the sky in the painting was a faithful representation of a rare kind of iridescent clouds known as nacreous, or mother-of-pearl.

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"From the meteorological world, I got a lot of very positive support," lead researcher Svein M. Fikke told CBC News this week. "They understand our arguments, but from the arts world, I think it still needs some time to let this idea mature, so to speak."

Mother-of-pearl clouds are very rare, and can only be observed under very restricted conditions. They are typically only glimpsed at sunrise or sunset, usually only very cold and clear days, and their amazing colours come from being lit from below, and having the light scattered in a certain why by the particles that they consist of.

The phenomenon made global headlines in February 2016, when mother-of-pearl clouds glittered in the skies above the U.K.

Svein's team point to a journal entry by Munch that describes how the concept of "The Scream" came to him, referencing a walk along a fjord with some friends while he was tired and ill. It would seem that he glimpsed what he described as a "blood red sky" and was overwhelmed at the sight.

"My friends went away – I stood there shivering from dread – and I felt this big, infinite scream through nature," Munch wrote sometime in the early 1890s. Svein also references an account by a painter friend of Munch, Christian Skredsvig, who later recalled Munch was still consumed by the memory of the fear he felt at the sight of that red sky.

"Skredsvig's note clearly leaves the strong impression that Munch's ‘sadness and despair’ were related to a real vision of the atmosphere, which motivates the search for a rational explanation from nature," Svein wrote in his paper.

This isn't the first time the weather has been used to explain Munch's iconic work. One other theory involves the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa, whose eruption in 1883 blasted so much ash and other particles into the atmosphere that it reportedly made for spectacular sunsets for some time afterward.

Svein's team do address that, saying that such sunsets would have occurred too often to be out-of-the-ordinary and striking to Munch. As well, they argue the distinctive shape of Munch's red clouds is no accident, and would have been distinct from the more diffuse colours produced by the light of the setting sun passing through a haze of volcanic particles.

"Descriptions from Europe and North America of brilliant sunsets in 1883/1884 compiled by Symons (1888) describe spectacular colours, but not wave-like features," the researchers write.

SOURCES: Royal Meteorological Society | CBC

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