It is well known that large volcanic eruptions contribute to climate variability. However, quantifying these contributions has proven challenging due to inconsistencies in both historic atmospheric data observed in ice cores and corresponding temperature variations seen in climate proxies such as tree rings.
Published yesterday (July 8) in the journal Nature, a new study led by scientists from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and collaborating international institutions, resolves these inconsistencies with a new reconstruction of the timing and associated radiative forcing of nearly 300 individual volcanic eruptions extending as far back as the early Roman period.
The study shows that 15 of the 16 coldest summers recorded between 500 BC and 1,000 AD followed large volcanic eruptions ‒ with four of the coldest occurring shortly after the largest volcanic events found in record.
This new reconstruction is derived from more than 20 individual ice cores extracted from ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and analyzed for volcanic sulfate primarily using DRI’s state-of-the-art, ultra-trace chemical ice-core analytical system. These ice-core records provide a year-by-year history of atmospheric sulfate levels through time. Additional measurements including other chemical parameters were made at collaborating institutions.
In total, a diverse research group of 24 scientists from 18 universities and research institutes in the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden contributed to this work – including specialists from the solar, space, climate, and geological sciences, as well as historians.
The authors note that identification of new evidence found in both ice cores and corresponding tree rings allowed constraints and verification of their new age scale.
Throughout human history, sustained volcanic cooling effects on climate have triggered crop failures and famines. These events may have also contributed to pandemics and societal decline in agriculture-based communities.
Together with Conor Kostick, Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham, Ludlow translated and interpreted ancient and medieval documentary records from China, Babylon (Iraq), and Europe that described unusual atmospheric observations as early as 254 years before Common Era (BCE). These phenomena included diminished sunlight, discoloration of the solar disk, the presence of solar coronae, and deeply red twilight skies.
Tropical volcanoes and large eruptions in the Northern Hemisphere high latitudes (such as Iceland and North America) – in 536, 626, and 939 CE, for example – often caused severe and widespread summer cooling in the Northern Hemisphere by injecting sulfate and ash into the high atmosphere. These particles also dimmed the atmosphere over Europe to such an extent that the effect was noted and recorded in independent archives by numerous historical eyewitnesses.
Climatic impact was strongest and most persistent after clusters of two or more large eruptions.
The authors note that their findings also resolve a long-standing debate regarding the causes of one of the most severe climate crises in recent human history, starting with an 18-month “mystery cloud” or dust veil observed in the Mediterranean region beginning in March, 536, the product of a large eruption in the high-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.
The initial cooling was intensified when a second volcano located somewhere in the tropics erupted only four years later. In the aftermath, exceptionally cold summers were observed throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
This pattern persisted for almost fifteen years, with subsequent crop failures and famines – likely contributing to the outbreak of the Justinian plague that spread throughout the Eastern Roman Empire from 541 to 543 CE, and which ultimately decimated the human population across Eurasia.
This reconciliation of ice-core records and other records of past environmental change will help define the role that large climatic perturbations may have had in the rise and fall of civilizations throughout human history.