Why London Turned Sepia

Yesterday, Hurricane Ophelia wreaked havoc on Ireland, taking the lives of at least three people as of this writing and leaving more than 350,000 without electricity. Like most hurricanes, the most devastating aspect of Ophelia is its winds, with gusts reaching 100 miles per hour. It’s the most severe storm to hit Ireland in roughly fifty years.

Thankfully, the major damage from the storm hasn’t spread further. Ophelia has, however, had a lot of other ancillary effects. For example, in the neighboring UK, made everything look a bit brown.

If you were in London yesterday, you probably witnessed something like the above. That looks like one of those old-time photos in which a black and white image is given a reddish-brown or sepia tint in order to make it feel warmer. Or, for more modern eyes, it’s one of those Instagram filters which does the same thing.

But in this case, there’s no filter and no artificial toning. Take a glance at a larger version of the image here. If you look carefully, you’ll see a lot of blue tones, particularly where there are lights, and the trees on the left bank seem green. That’s a real photo of a real event, posted to Twitter by the official account of the London Eye (the name of that big Ferris wheel). Ophelia turned England sepia and turned the sun above the UK red.

How? BBC meteorologist Simon King explains:

Ophelia originated in the Azores where it was a hurricane and as it tracked its way northwards it dragged in tropical air from the Sahara. The dust gets picked up into the air and goes high up into the atmosphere, and that dust has been dragged high up in the atmosphere above the UK.

Because the dust is so high, light from the sun is scattered in the longer wavelengths, which is more the red part of the spectrum, so it appears red to our eyes.

That dust isn’t just sand, though — a large percentage of it has a tragic source. As the Telegraph notes, “huge forest fires have also swept across central Portugal and west central Spain,” claiming the lives of at least nine and “filling the sky with ash and smoke.” It’s that ash and smoke which makes up a lot of that dust.

Many in the UK joked online that the red sun and brown skies were proof of that the end of the world was upon them, but that was obviously hyperbole. Because the dust is so high up in the atmosphere, those experiencing the sepia skies aren’t at risk from the unique optical experience. But we should all keep in mind that not everyone was as safe. Given that yesterday’s phenomenon was caused by a hurricane meeting a forest fire, others in nearby countries were not as fortunate.

Bonus fact: In 2009, Sydney, Australia, was met with a similar experience; a massive dust storm turned the skies Kool-Aid red. This short BBC documentary has some incredible footage of the effect.

From the Archives: Volcanic Scream: In Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream,” the sky is an ominous red. Why? It turns out, the reasons are similar to the events of yesterday in London.