The Day the Sun Disappeared


(This 1077th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 13, 2011.)


In September 1950, United States troops were fighting in eastern Asia. After the initial deep penetration of South Korea by North Korean forces, United Nations forces led by Douglas MacArthur had fought back and retaken the South Korean capital of Seoul. Thousands of American soldiers joined this effort, slogging up the Korean peninsula.


The North Korean retreat raised other concerns, however. The specter of intervention by China and Russia in the conflict, bringing with them their atomic weapons, was frightening. Our Defense Secretary George Marshall called our situation one of "great peril." Across the United States people built bomb shelters and school children participated in bomb drills, hiding under their desks.


It was in this disturbing setting that on Sunday, September 24th an episode occurred that played directly into those fears. At mid-afternoon thick black clouds rolled in to cover the sky. The sun turned purple with a yellow aurora before it disappeared entirely. These were not familiar cumulus or nimbus clouds; rather, they had odd bulges roiling on their underside. Soon they blotted out all light and turned the entire region into deep twilight, so dark that streetlights and airport runway lights came on. People reported that everything was quiet and birds were no longer singing. One observer claimed that white houses looked as though seen through yellow cellophane.


Think of what your own reaction might have been to that unprecedented event. Was this an atomic cloud? Had an A-bomb been dropped in Lake Erie? Was it the beginning of World War III? Or might this even be the first stage of the apocalypse of the Biblical Book of Revelations?


Whatever they thought, people were indeed frightened. This had never happened before. One local newspaper used an appropriate metaphor in reporting that Buffalo citizens "had the daylights scared out of them."


One man who was a youngster at the time later reported, "My mother, who used every unusual event as a control mechanism, told us something along the lines that God was behind it all and we better stay inside and behave." A 13-year old was visiting a friend when the cloud appeared: "My mother called to warn me to stay where I was because she didn't know what was going on and didn't want me out on the street."


Thankfully, there was a far less threatening answer to their concerns. Two thousand miles off to our northwest hundreds of forest fires were burning in northern Alberta and British Columbia. Smoke from those fires drifted first northeast and then almost due south until it passed over Lake Superior. From there the path curved east to be thickest over the cities of Hamilton, Ontario, Buffalo and Cleveland. The clouds would continue southeast to cover cities in Pennsylvania including Pittsburgh.


Oddly, there was no smell of burning. The clouds were trapped between layers of atmosphere and that easily identifiable odor did not reach the ground.


Climatologist Dr. Stephen Vermette of Buffalo State College's Department of Geography and Planning has written an interesting article about this event that appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Western New York Heritage Magazine. This column is largely based on that essay.


Vermette and Tullis Johnson, Archives Manager of the college's Burchfield Penney Art Center have also arranged an exhibit titled "Weather Event", which is on display through February 26, 2011. There will be an opening celebration for the exhibit on Friday, November 18 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.


The artist for whom the art gallery is named is Charles Burchfield. According to the event announcement, his "representations of weather, wind, skies and sounds are unique historical records of the environment near Lake Erie. In 1915, Burchfield made a series of sketches that show the changing weather and position of the sun over the course of several hours, which he called all-day sketches. Decades later, one of his 1950 journal entry recounts 'The Day the Sun Disappeared over Western New York.' In these unique instances and others we will experience the landscape through Burchfield's eyes. Working with climatologist and Buffalo State College professor Stephen Vermette, Ph.D., we present the dramatic and complex natural phenomenon chronicled in more than 50 years of Burchfield's writings, drawings and paintings."-- Gerry Rising