Can art give clues to sea level rise?

Paintings by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch often give you a sinking feeling (see “The Scream”, left). But can art give clues to sea level changes?

Masterpieces by Canaletto and Bellotto in the first half of the 18th century have been used to document the subsidence of Venice, relative to its lagoon. But might paintings from past centuries be used as informal gauges elsewhere to show the rate of ocean rise? (…has anyone tried?)

For fun, here’s a comparison that highlights some of the problems.

Below is “Melancholy” painted by Munch in 1892 by the fjord in Aasgardstrand, the village in southern Norway where he lived, and at a time when photographs were still rare:

The dark shoreline seems to be seaweed with a thin wavy line along the beach that suggests a high tide mark. Below is a photo I took today of roughly the same place (I couldn’t find a sad-looking guy: he was probably looking even more morose indoors since it was pouring with rain).

Art experts at the house where Munch lived say that the rock on the right is the same as the big one in the painting — the smaller ones have been moved with reconstruction along the beachfront.

At first glance it looks like the sea has risen, right up to the large rock — it hasn’t. In the bottom photo it’s simply nearer high tide. Also, the land in south Norway is rising — maybe 30 cms a century — outstripping any effect of sea level rise since Munch was here. (The land is still rebounding after the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago removed a vast frozen weight).

So this simply shows some blindingly obvious objections — artists often aren’t trying to paint an exact scene…in the painting it might be low tide, high tide, etc…and changes in sea levels — an average 17 cm rise in the 20th century, according to the U.N. panel of climate scientists — vary locally.

Still, if sea levels rise as much as many experts fear this century, old masterpieces might get dusted off as evidence — and might be far more convincing to ordinary people than experts talking about tide gauges.