Polar ice cores reveal volcanic eruptions that changed human history
Researchers find new evidence that large eruptions were responsible for cold temperature extremes recorded since early Roman times
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 polar ice cores and corresponding temperature variations seen in climate indicators such as tree rings.
Published today in the journal Nature, a new study by a team of international scientists, including those from British Antarctic Survey, resolves these inconsistencies with a new reconstruction of the timing and changes in temperature of the atmosphere of nearly 300 individual volcanic eruptions extending as far back as the early Roman period.
“Using new records we are able to show that large volcanic eruptions in the tropics and high latitudes were the dominant drivers of climate variability, responsible for numerous and widespread summer cooling extremes over the past 2,500 years,” explains Dr Michael Sigl, the paper’s lead author, assistant research professor at DRI and postdoctoral fellow with the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland.
“These cooler temperatures were caused by large amounts of volcanic sulfate particles injected into the upper atmosphere,” Sigl added, “shielding the Earth”s surface from incoming solar radiation.”
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.
UK author Dr Robert Mulvaney from British Antarctic Survey says:
“We’ve long known that large volcanic eruptions can cool the climate, often for a few years after the event. Evidence for large eruptions is clearly seen in the chemistry recorded in ice cores, and the disruption to climate is recorded both historically and in tree rings, but up until now we have sometimes had difficulty lining up the relative timing of the events.
“What makes this new study special is the accuracy of the dating techniques brought to bear on the ice core record — we now have much more certainty in attributing recorded climate responses to specific volcanic activity recorded in the ice.”
This results are from a new method for producing the timescale. Previously, this was done by hand, but now using a statistical algorithm. Together with the state-of-the-art ice core chemistry measurements, this resulted in a more accurate dating of the ice cores.
“Using a multidisciplinary approach was key to the success of this project,” added Sigl.
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.
“With the discovery of a distinctive signature in the ice-core records from an extra-terrestrial cosmic ray event, we had a critical time marker that we used to significantly improve the dating accuracy of the ice-core chronologies,” explained Dr Kees Welten, associate research chemist from the University of California, Berkeley.
A signature from this same event had been identified earlier in various tree-ring chronologies dating to 774–775 AD.
“Ice-core timescales had been misdated previously by five to ten years during the first millennium leading to inconsistencies in the proposed timing of volcanic eruptions relative to written documentary and tree-ring evidence recording the climatic responses to the same eruptions,” explains Dr Francis Ludlow, a postdoctoral fellow from the Yale Climate & Energy Institute.
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 Dr Conor Kostick, 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 BC. 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 AD, 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 AD, and which ultimately decimated the human population across Eurasia.
“This new reconstruction of volcanic forcing will lead to improved climate model simulations through better quantification of the sensitivity of the climate system to volcanic influences during the past 2,500 years,” notes Dr. McConnell.
“As a result,” McConnell added, “climate variability observed during more recent times can be put into a multi-millennial perspective — including time periods such as the Roman Warm Period and the times of significant cultural change such as Great Migration Period of the 6th century in Europe.”
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.
“With new high-resolution records emerging from ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica, it will be possible to extend this reconstruction of volcanic forcing probably all the way back into the last Ice Age,” adds Sigl.
This research was largely funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Polar Program; with contributions from additional funding agencies and institutions in Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Korea, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
This news story is based on a press release released by the lead organisation on the paper at the Desert Research Institute (DRI): Volcanic eruptions that changed human history