Volcanic eruptions contribute to climate variability, but quantifying these contributions has been limited by inconsistencies in the timing of atmospheric volcanic aerosol loading determined from ice cores and subsequent cooling from climate proxies such as tree rings. Here we resolve these inconsistencies and show that large eruptions in the tropics and high latitudes were primary drivers of interannual-to-decadal temperature variability in the Northern Hemisphere during the past 2,500 years. Our results are based on new records of atmospheric aerosol loading developed from high-resolution, multi-parameter measurements from an array of Greenland and Antarctic ice cores as well as distinctive age markers to constrain chronologies. Overall, cooling was proportional to the magnitude of volcanic forcing and persisted for up to ten years after some of the largest eruptive episodes. Our revised timescale more firmly implicates volcanic eruptions as catalysts in the major sixth-century pandemics, famines, and socioeconomic disruptions in Eurasia and Mesoamerica while allowing multi-millennium quantification of climate response to volcanic forcing.
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Extended data figures and tables
Extended Data Figures
- Extended Data Figure 1: Location of study sites. (414 KB)
a, Map showing locations (blue circles) of the five ice cores (WDC, B40, NEEM, NGRIP and TUNU) used in this study. Sites of temperature-limited tree-ring chronologies (green)42, 43, 76, 77, 78 and sites with annual Δ14C measurements from tree-rings in the eighth century ce (red outline) are marked. b, Metadata for the ice cores, tree-ring width (RW), maximum latewood density (MXD) chronologies and temperature reconstructions used3, 12, 16, 17, 25, 35, 42, 43, 76, 77, 78, 82. m water equ. a−1, metres of water equivalent per year.
- Extended Data Figure 2: Volcanic dust veils from historical documentary sources in relation to NEEM. (127 KB)
Time series of 32 independently selected chronological validation points from well dated historical observations of atmospheric phenomena with known association to explosive volcanism (for example, diminished sunlight, discoloured solar disk, solar corona or Bishop's Ring, red volcanic sunset) as reported in the Near East, Mediterranean region, and China, before our earliest chronological age marker at 536 ce. Black lines represent the magnitude (scale on y axes) of annual sulfate deposition measured in NEEM (NEEM and NEEM-2011-S1 ice cores) from explosive volcanic events on the new NS1-2011 timescale. Red crosses depict the 24 (75%) historical validation points for which NEEM volcanic events occur within a conservative ±3-year uncertainty margin. Blue crosses represent the eight points for which volcanic events are not observed. The association between validation points and volcanic events is statistically significantly non-random at>99.9% confidence (P < 0.001). ppb, parts per billion.
- Extended Data Figure 3: Timescale comparison. (412 KB)
Age differences of the timescales NS1-2011 and GICC05 for the NEEM-2011-S1/NEEM ice cores (a) and WD2014 and WDC06A-7 for WDC (b). Differences before 86 ce (the age of the ice that is now at the bottom of the ice core NEEM-2011-S1) deriving from the annual-layer counting of the NEEM core are shown for major volcanic eruptions relative to the respective signals in NGRIP on the annual-layer counted GICC05 timescale. Marker events used for constraining the annual-layer dating (solid line) and for chronology evaluation (dashed lines) are indicated. Triangles mark volcanic signals. Also indicated is the difference between WD2014 and the Antarctic ice-core chronology (AICC2012)92, based on volcanic synchronization between the WDC and EDC96 ice cores.
- Extended Data Figure 4: Post-volcanic suppression of tree growth. (329 KB)
Superposed epoch analysis for large volcanic eruptions using the 28 largest volcanic eruptions (a); the 23 largest tropical eruptions (b); the five largest Northern Hemisphere eruptions (c); and eruptions larger than Tambora 1815 with respect to sulfate aerosol loading (d). Shown are growth anomalies of a multi-centennial tree-ring composite record (N-Tree) 15 years after the year of volcanic sulfate deposition, relative to the average of five years before the events. Dashed lines indicate 95% confidence intervals (2 s.e.m.) of the tree-ring growth anomalies associated with the multiple eruptions.
- Extended Data Figure 5: Major-element composition for ice core tephra QUB-1859 and reference material. (172 KB)
Shown are selected geochemistry data: SiO2 versus total alkali (K2O + Na2O) (a); FeO (total iron oxides) versus TiO2 (b); SiO2 versus Al2O3 (c); and CaO versus MgO (d) from 11 shards extracted from the NEEM-2011-S1 ice core at 327.17–327.25 m depth, representing the age range 536.0–536.4 ce on the new, NS1-2011 timescale. Data for Late Holocene tephra from Mono Craters (California) are from the compilation by ref. 90; data for Aniakchak (Alaska) are from reference material published by ref. 88; and data for the early Holocene upper Finlay tephra, believed to be from the Edziza complex in the Upper Cordilleran Volcanic province (British Columbia), are from ref. 89. (See Supplementary Information for the Upper Finlay tephra.)
Extended Data Tables
- Supplementary Information (80 KB)
This file contains a Supplementary File guide
- Supplementary Data 2 (1.3 MB)
This file contains 3 Supplementary data tables – see guide for details.
- Supplementary Data 1 (21 KB)
This file contains ice core meta data and 10Be results – see guide for details.
- Supplementary Data 3 (8.7 MB)
This file contains data from Greenland ice cores– see guide for details.
- Supplementary Data 4 (6.6 MB)
This file contains data from Antarctica ice cores– see guide for details.
- Supplementary Data 5 (46 KB)
This file contains volcanic reconstruction data– see guide for details.