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Significant decadal-scale impact of volcanic eruptions on sea level and ocean heat content


Ocean thermal expansion contributes significantly to sea-level variability and rise1. However, observed decadal variability in ocean heat content2,3 and sea level4 has not been reproduced well in climate models5. Aerosols injected into the stratosphere during volcanic eruptions scatter incoming solar radiation, and cause a rapid cooling of the atmosphere6,7 and a reduction in rainfall6,8,9, as well as other changes in the climate system7. Here we use observations of ocean heat content2,3 and a set of climate simulations to show that large volcanic eruptions result in rapid reductions in ocean heat content and global mean sea level. For the Mt Pinatubo eruption, we estimate a reduction in ocean heat content of about 3 × 1022 J and a global sea-level fall of about 5 mm. Over the three years following such an eruption, we estimate a decrease in evaporation of up to 0.1 mm d-1, comparable to observed changes in mean land precipitation6,8,9. The recovery of sea level following the Mt Pinatubo eruption in 1991 explains about half of the difference between the long-term rate of sea-level rise4 of 1.8 mm yr-1 (for 1950–2000), and the higher rate estimated for the more recent period where satellite altimeter data are available (1993–2000)4,10.

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Figure 1: Changes in global mean sea level (GMSL) and global ocean heat content (GOHC) in the PCM simulations.
Figure 2: Observed and modelled GOHC and GMSL for the period 1960–2000.
Figure 3: Ocean heat budget anomalies associated with the Mt Pinatubo eruption.


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This paper is a contribution to the CSIRO Climate Change Research Program. This work was supported by the Australian Government's Cooperative Research Centres Programme through the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC). Portions of this study were supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, US Department of Energy, as part of its Climate Change Prediction Program, and by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. We acknowledge the international modelling groups for providing their data for analysis, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) for collecting and archiving the model data, the JSC/CLIVAR Working Group on Coupled Modelling (WGCM) and their Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) and Climate Simulation Panel for organizing the model data analysis activity, and the IPCC WG1 TSU for technical support. The IPCC Data Archive at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. We thank T. Wigley for comments and insight.

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Correspondence to John A. Church.

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Church, J., White, N. & Arblaster, J. Significant decadal-scale impact of volcanic eruptions on sea level and ocean heat content. Nature 438, 74–77 (2005).

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