What caused the mystery of the Dark Day?
Published: 18th May 2012 12:19:21
Three centuries ago in parts of North America, a strange event turned morning to night. It remains wreathed in mystery - so what caused the Dark Day?
Halfway through the morning the sky turns yellow. Animals run for cover and darkness descends, causing people to light candles and start to pray. By lunchtime night has fallen. Is it the end of the world?
The Dark Day, as it's become known, took place on May 19, 1780 in New England and Canada. For the past 232 years historians and scientists have argued over the origins of this strange event.
Today there are many theories. Was it the result of volcanic eruption, fire, meteor strike - or something more sinister?
When the makers of Doctor Who this week asked fans of the show to send in their suggestions, they received a wide range of theories both plausible and Tardis-related.
With little scientific knowledge amongst the populace in 1780, people would have been afraid. Some lawmakers in Connecticut believed it was the day of judgement. The sense that a decisive moment was afoot would have been bolstered by the fact that during the preceding days, the sun and moon glowed red.
Historian Mike Dash says the north-east corner of the US was a deeply Protestant society with a profound interest in "guilt, sin and redemption". Dash, who wrote about the paranormal in his book Borderlands, says that faced with sudden darkness, people would look for biblical precedents.
"There are some verses in Matthew that might have led them to believe that this is the second coming of Christ. At the time, natural events - even birds fighting in the sky - were a sign of God's intentions. The Dark Day would have seemed like a warning to Man."
Apocalypse anxiety is no new phenomenon, but even modern-day society looks for signs of the world ending:
Cern's Large Hadron Collider caused such worry to its critics that a group of them filed a lawsuit in 2008 to prevent works continuing.
Evangelical preacher Harold Camping predicted Judgement Day and the second coming on 21 May 2011, leaving his followers bewildered when the date passed without event.
Contrary to popular belief, the Mayas did not predict the end of the world in 2012, according to a German expert who re-interpreted a tablet belonging to the ancient civilisation.
So what might explain 1780's Dark Day?
The Met Office points out that thick cloud can drop low enough to turn on automatic street lights and require cars to use their lights. But it's unlikely this alone would be enough to cause a Dark Day.
A solar eclipse can be ruled out as there is a record of when these occur - and they only last for a matter of minutes.
The eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 caused enough ash to enter the atmosphere to ground flights across northern Europe.
Thomas Choularton, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Manchester, says volcanic ash clouds often cause "yellow days". Eruptions at Mount St Helens in Washington State have lowered light levels in recent decades, he adds.
And yet there is no record of volcanic activity in 1780, he says, making a huge ash cloud an unlikely explanation. A meteorite is equally unlikely, although "you can't rule it out completely", Prof Choularton says.
The answer to the puzzle can be found in the trees, many scientists believe.
Academics at the University of Missouri's Department of Forestry analysed tree trunks inland from New England, where westerly prevailing winds would originate. They found signs of fire-scarred rings in tree trunks dating back to that period.
It is also known that there was a drought there in 1780 making fire more likely, says Dr Will Blake, associate professor of geography at Plymouth University.
But could a forest fire cause such a change in light? "I've witnessed minor fires in Australia where you get a very eerie light. The bigger the fire, the darker it's going to get." Fog is common on the east coast. The mix of fog and soot from the forest fire would combine to make darkness descend, Dr Blake argues.
Eyewitness accounts in New England support the forest fire hypothesis. Soot was spotted in the rivers. And Jeremy Belknap of Boston wrote in a letter that the air had the "smell of a malt-house or a coal-kiln".
William Corliss, the physicist and chronicler of unexplained events, found 46 accounts of dark days around the world between 1091 and 1971.
Nowadays people can call upon scientific knowledge, satellite pictures and the media for reassurance. But Dark Days have continued to unsettle people until surprisingly recently.
A Dark Day in a similar part of North America to 1780's occurred in 1950. It was caused by forest fires in Alberta and prompted alarm and confusion, says David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada.
"If you'd woken up at noon you'd have believed it was midnight. People thought it was nuclear attack or a solar eclipse."
Whatever the cause in 1780, the geography must have exacerbated the fear, says Dash. Settlements tended to go little more than 200 miles inland. In essence, European settlers were living on the edge of a vast unknown continent.
"When it goes dark for them, there's no guarantee it is ever going to get light again. In those days it would be quite natural to think it was the Second Coming," Dash says. When dawn arrived, it is likely that prayers of thanks were said across the previously benighted land.
Do you have a fanciful explanation for Dark Day? Tell us using the form below, or send a diagram to email@example.com with the subject DARK DAY, and we'll publish a selection.
If you are happy to be contacted by a BBC journalist please leave a telephone number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures, video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the terms and conditions.
Terms and conditions
At 00:59:22 in PoliticsA "badly managed" Home Office scheme resulted in asylum seekers being placed in "unacceptably poor" housing, the Public Accounts Committee has said.
At 00:48:17 in HeadlinesSouth Sudan's President Salva Kiir has sacked the head of the army.
At 00:39:06 in EnglandThe decline of some regional English dialects has been mourned for years but now sign language is being hit by the same trend. Researchers say regional variations that produced 22 different ways of signing the word "purple" are dying out.
At 00:29:16 in HeadlinesFormula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone is set to appear at the start of a trial on bribery charges in Munich.
At 00:16:58 in BusinessEnergy grids across the world are struggling to cope with a surge in demand for electricity and increasingly volatile supply from renewable power sources.
At 00:11:50 in SportEighteen-time US Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps says concerns about weight gain were behind his decision to return to the sport.
At 00:09:32 in BusinessBeckford's Tower stands proudly on the hills overlooking the spa city of Bath, a monument to eccentricity and wealth.
At 00:01:40 in TechnologyDrones are becoming more common in our skies, performing a variety of tasks, from taking photos to monitoring crops and potentially even delivering broadband.
At 00:01:37 in HeadlinesBritish counter-terrorism police chiefs are making an unprecedented appeal to Muslim women to urge men against travelling to possibly fight in Syria.
At 23:52:22 in SportA turbulent three days for Manchester United has ended with them fending off allegations of unprofessionalism labelled against them by the League Managers Association (LMA).
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. What caused the mystery of the Dark Day? [Online] (Updated 18th May 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1429499/What-caused-the-mystery-of-the-Dark-Day [Accessed 24th Apr 2014]
News In Other Categories
Griff Rhys Jones has withdrawn from becoming Cardiff University's new chancellor just two weeks after an embarrassing debacle which saw his appointment halted at the last minute.
US actress Jodie Foster has married her girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, the actress' representative confirms.
Eighteen-time US Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps says concerns about weight gain were behind his decision to return to the sport.
A "badly managed" Home Office scheme resulted in asylum seekers being placed in "unacceptably poor" housing, the Public Accounts Committee has said.
US actress Jodie Foster has married her girlfriend, Alexandra Hedison, the actress' representative confirms.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com