Volcanic winter

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A volcanic winter is a reduction in global temperatures caused by volcanic ash and droplets of sulfuric acid and water obscuring the Sun and raising Earth's albedo (increasing the reflection of solar radiation) after a large, particularly explosive volcanic eruption. Long-term cooling effects are primarily dependent upon injection of sulfur gases into the stratosphere where they undergo a series of reactions to create sulfuric acid which can nucleate and form aerosols. [1] Volcanic stratospheric aerosols cool the surface by reflecting solar radiation and warm the stratosphere by absorbing terrestrial radiation. [2] The variations in atmospheric warming and cooling result in changes in tropospheric and stratospheric circulation. [1]


Historic examples

The effects of volcanic eruptions on recent winters are modest in scale, but historically have been significant.

The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a stratovolcano in the Philippines, cooled global temperatures for about 2–3 years. [3]
The explosion of Krakatoa (Krakatau) may have contributed to volcanic winter-like conditions. The four years following the explosion were unusually cold, and the winter of 1887–1888 included powerful blizzards. [4] Record snowfalls were recorded worldwide. However, the period of cold winters started with the 1882-1883 winter, months before the Krakatoa eruption.
The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, a stratovolcano in Indonesia caused what came to be known as the "Year Without a Summer" of 1816. Europe, still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in the United Kingdom and France, and grain warehouses were looted. The violence was worst in landlocked Switzerland, where famine caused the government to declare a national emergency. Huge storms and abnormal rainfall with flooding of Europe's major rivers (including the Rhine) are attributed to the event, as is the August frost. A major typhus epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819, precipitated by the famine. An estimated 100,000 Irish people perished during this period. A BBC documentary, using figures compiled in Switzerland, estimated that the fatality rates in 1816 were twice that of average years, giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths. The corn crop in Northeastern North America failed, due to mid-summer frosts in New York State and June snowfalls in New England and Newfoundland and Labrador. The crop failures in New England, Canada, and parts of Europe also caused the price of wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk, and flour to rise sharply.
The eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland released enormous amounts of sulfur dioxide, resulting in the death of much of the island's livestock and a catastrophic famine which killed a quarter of the Icelandic population. It has been estimated that 23,000 British people died from the poisoning. [5] Northern hemisphere temperatures dropped by about 1 °C in the year following the Laki eruption. The winter of 1783–1784 was very severe, and estimated to have caused 8,000 additional deaths in the UK. The meteorological impact of Laki continued, contributing significantly to several years of extreme weather in Europe. In France, the sequence of extreme weather events contributed significantly to an increase in poverty and famine that may have contributed to the French Revolution in 1789. [6] Laki was only one factor in a decade of climatic disruption, as Grímsvötn was erupting from 1783 to 1785, and there may have been an unusually strong El Niño effect from 1789 to 1793. [7] A paper written by Benjamin Franklin in 1783 [8] blamed the unusually cool summer of 1783 in North America on volcanic dust coming from this eruption, though Franklin's proposal has been questioned. [9]
The Huaynaputina in Peru erupted. Tree ring studies show that 1601 was cold. Russia had its worst famine in 1601–1603. From 1600 to 1602, Switzerland, Latvia and Estonia had exceptionally cold winters. The wine harvest was late in 1601 in France, and in Peru and Germany, wine production collapsed. Peach trees bloomed late in China, and Lake Suwa in Japan froze early. [10]
1452 or 1453
A cataclysmic eruption of the submarine volcano Kuwae caused worldwide disruptions.
The Great Famine of 1315–1317 in Europe may have been precipitated by a volcanic event, [11] perhaps that of Mount Tarawera, New Zealand, lasting about five years. [12] [13]
The 1257 Samalas eruption in Indonesia. The eruption left behind a large caldera next to Rinjani, with Lake Segara Anak inside it. [14] This eruption probably had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 7, making it one of the largest eruptions of the current Holocene epoch.
An examination of ice cores showed a large spike in sulfate deposition around 1257. This was strong evidence of a large eruption having occurred somewhere in the world. In 2013, scientists proved that the eruption occurred at Mount Samalas. This eruption had four distinct phases, alternately creating eruption columns reaching tens of kilometres into the atmosphere and pyroclastic flows burying large parts of Lombok Island. The flows destroyed human habitations, including the city of Pamatan. Ash from the eruption fell as far away as Java Island. The volcano deposited more than 10 cubic kilometres (2.4 cu mi) of material. The eruption was witnessed by people who recorded it on palm leaves, the Babad Lombok. Later volcanic activity created additional volcanic centres in the caldera, including the Barujari cone that remains active. The aerosols injected into the atmosphere reduced the solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface, which cooled the atmosphere for several years and led to famines and crop failures in Europe and elsewhere, although the exact scale of the temperature anomalies and their consequences is still debated. It is possible that the eruption helped trigger the Little Ice Age.
945 or 946
The 946 eruption of Paektu Mountain is believed to have caused a major global climatic impact, with regional anomalies of colder weather and snowfall from 945 to 948.
The extreme weather events of 535–536 are most likely linked to a volcanic eruption. The latest theorised explanation is the Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ) eruption of the Ilopango caldera in central El Salvador. [15]
Toba supereruption
A proposed volcanic winter occurred around 71,000–73,000 years ago following the supereruption of Lake Toba on Sumatra island in Indonesia. In the following 6 years there was the highest amount of volcanic sulfur deposited in the last 110,000 years, possibly causing significant deforestation in Southeast Asia and the cooling of global temperatures by 1 °C. [16] Some scientists hypothesize that the eruption caused an immediate return to a glacial climate by accelerating an ongoing continental glaciation, causing massive population reduction among animals and human beings. Others argue that the climatic effects of the eruption were too weak and brief to impact early human populations to the degree proposed. [16] This, combined with the abrupt occurrence of most human differentiations in that same period, is a probable case of bottleneck linked to volcanic winters (see Toba catastrophe theory). On average, super-eruptions with total eruptive masses of at least 1015 kg (Toba eruptive mass = 6.9 × 1015 kg) occur every 1 million years. [17] However, archaeologists who in 2013 found a microscopic layer of glassy volcanic ash in sediments of Lake Malawi, and definitively linked the ash to the 75,000-year-old Toba super-eruption, went on to note a complete absence of the change in fossil type close to the ash layer that would be expected following a severe volcanic winter. This result led the archaeologists to conclude that the largest known volcanic eruption in the history of the human species did not significantly alter the climate of East Africa. [18] [19]

Effects on life

The supervolcano caldera Lake Toba Toba zoom.jpg
The supervolcano caldera Lake Toba

The causes of the population bottleneck  – a sharp decrease in a species' population, immediately followed by a period of great genetic divergence (differentiation) among survivors – is attributed to volcanic winters by some researchers. Such events may diminish populations to "levels low enough for evolutionary changes, which occur much faster in small populations, to produce rapid population differentiation". [20] With the Lake Toba bottleneck, many species showed massive effects of narrowing of the gene pool, and Toba may have reduced the human population to between 40,000 and 15,000 or even fewer. [20]

See also

Related Research Articles

Lake Toba Crater lake located in Sumatra, Indonesia

Lake Toba is a large natural lake in Sumatra, Indonesia occupying the caldera of a supervolcano. The lake is located in the middle of the northern part of the island of Sumatra, with a surface elevation of about 900 metres (2,953 ft), the lake stretches from 2.88°N 98.52°E to 2.35°N 99.1°E. The lake is about 100 kilometres long, 30 kilometres (19 mi) wide, and up to 505 metres (1,657 ft) deep. It is the largest lake in Indonesia and the largest volcanic lake in the world. Lake Toba Caldera is one of the nineteen Geoparks in Indonesia, which is proposed to be included in the UNESCO Global Geopark.

Supervolcano Volcano that has erupted 1000 cubic km in a single eruption

A supervolcano is a large volcano that has had an eruption with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 8, the largest recorded value on the index. This means the volume of deposits for that eruption is greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers.

Volcano rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface

A volcano is a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

Little Ice Age A period of cooling after the Medieval Warm Period that lasted from the 16th to the 19th century

The Little Ice Age (LIA) was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period. Although it was not a true ice age, the term was introduced into scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939. It has been conventionally defined as a period extending from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but some experts prefer an alternative timespan from about 1300 to about 1850.

Year Without a Summer 1816, a volcanic winter event during the Little Ice Age

The year 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.72–1.26 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.

Mount Tambora stratovolcano of Indonesia

Mount Tambora, or Tomboro, is an active stratovolcano in the northern part of Sumbawa, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia. It was formed due to the active subduction zones beneath it, and before its 1815 eruption, it was more than 4,300 metres high, making it one of the tallest peaks in the Indonesian archipelago.

Toba catastrophe theory Supereruption 75,000 years ago that may have caused a global volcanic winter

The Toba supereruption was a supervolcanic eruption that occurred about 75,000 years ago at the site of present-day Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia. It is one of the Earth's largest known eruptions. The Toba catastrophe theory holds that this event caused a global volcanic winter of six to ten years and possibly a 1,000-year-long cooling episode.

Yellowstone Caldera volcanic caldera in Yellowstone National Park in the United states

The Yellowstone Caldera is a volcanic caldera and supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park in the Western United States, sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano. The caldera and most of the park are located in the northwest corner of Wyoming. The major features of the caldera measure about 34 by 45 miles.

Mount Tarawera mountain

Mount Tarawera is a volcano on the North Island of New Zealand. Located 24 kilometres southeast of Rotorua, it consists of a series of rhyolitic lava domes that were fissured down the middle by an explosive basaltic eruption in 1886. This eruption was one of New Zealand's largest historical eruptions, and killed an estimated 120 people. The fissures run for about 17 kilometres northeast-southwest.

Laki volcanic fissure in the south of Iceland

Laki or Lakagígar is a volcanic fissure in the south of Iceland, not far from the volcanic fissure of Eldgjá and the small village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The fissure is properly referred to as Lakagígar, while Laki is a mountain that the fissure bisects. Lakagígar is part of a volcanic system centered on the volcano Grímsvötn and including the volcano Thordarhyrna. It lies between the glaciers of Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull, in an area of fissures that run in a southwest to northeast direction.

Plinian eruption type of volcanic eruption

Plinian eruptions or Vesuvian eruptions are volcanic eruptions marked by their similarity to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The eruption was described in a letter written by Pliny the Younger, after the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder.

Huaynaputina Volcano in Peru

Huaynaputina is a stratovolcano in a volcanic upland in southern Peru. Part of the Central Volcanic Zone of the Andean Volcanic Belt, it is the product of the subduction of the oceanic Nazca tectonic plate beneath the continental part of the South American tectonic plate at a rate of 10.3 centimetres per year (4.1 in/year). Huaynaputina is a large volcanic crater, lacking an identifiable mountain profile, with an outer stratovolcano and three younger volcanic vents. The vents of Huaynaputina form a north-northwest–south-southeast trend.

El Chichón Mexican volcano

El Chichón, also known as Chichonal, is an active volcano in Francisco León, north-western Chiapas, Mexico. El Chichón is part of a geologic zone known as the Chiapanecan Volcanic Arc. El Chichón is a complex of domes with a tuff ring, made of ejected volcanic material, located between the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and the Central America Volcanic Arc. El Chichón erupted in 1982; prior to this, activity had not occurred since ca.1360, although debates in literature occur around an eruption occurring in ca.1850.

Stratospheric sulfur aerosols sulfur-rich particles in the stratosphere

Stratospheric sulfur aerosols are sulfur-rich particles which exist in the stratosphere region of the Earth's atmosphere. The layer of the atmosphere in which they exist is known as the Junge layer, or simply the stratospheric aerosol layer. These particles consist of a mixture of sulfuric acid and water. They are created naturally, such as by photochemical decomposition of sulfur-containing gases, e.g. carbonyl sulfide. When present in high levels, e.g. after a strong volcanic eruption such as Mount Pinatubo, they produce a cooling effect, by reflecting sunlight, and by modifying clouds as they fall out of the stratosphere. This cooling may persist for a few years before the particles fall out.

Timeline of volcanism on Earth

This timeline of volcanism on Earth is a list of major volcanic eruptions of approximately at least magnitude 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) or equivalent sulfur dioxide emission around the Quaternary period.

1815 eruption of Mount Tambora Catastrophic volcanic eruption in present-day Indonesia

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora was the most powerful in human recorded history, with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 7. It is the most recently known VEI-7 event and the only unambiguously confirmed VEI-7 eruption since the Lake Taupo eruption in about 180 AD.

Tectonic–climatic interaction is the interrelationship between tectonic processes and the climate system. The tectonic processes in question include orogenesis, volcanism, and erosion, while relevant climatic processes include atmospheric circulation, orographic lift, monsoon circulation and the rain shadow effect. As the geological record of past climate changes over millions of years is sparse and poorly resolved, many questions remain unresolved regarding the nature of tectonic-climate interaction, although it is an area of active research by geologists and palaeoclimatologists.

1257 Samalas eruption Major eruption of the Samalas volcano in Indonesia

In 1257, a catastrophic eruption occurred at Samalas volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok. The event had a probable Volcanic Explosivity Index of 7, making it one of the largest volcanic eruptions during the current Holocene epoch. It created eruption columns reaching tens of kilometres into the atmosphere and pyroclastic flows that buried much of Lombok and crossed the sea to reach the neighbouring island of Sumbawa. The flows destroyed human habitations, including the city of Pamatan, which was the capital of a kingdom on Lombok. Ash from the eruption fell as far as 340 kilometres (210 mi) away in Java; the volcano deposited more than 10 cubic kilometres (2.4 cu mi) of rocks and ash.


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Further reading