Timing and climate forcing of volcanic eruptions for the past 2,500 years

  • Nature volume 523, pages 543549 (30 July 2015)
  • doi:10.1038/nature14565
  • Download Citation
Published online:


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.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    Volcanic eruptions and climate. Rev. Geophys. 38, 191–219 (2000)

  2. 2.

    , & Pairwise comparisons to reconstruct mean temperature in the Arctic Atlantic Region over the last 2,000 years. Clim. Dyn. 41, 2039–2060 (2013)

  3. 3.

    . Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia. Nature Geosci. 6, 503 (2013)

  4. 4.

    et al. Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 13252–13257 (2008)

  5. 5.

    A history of solar activity over millennia. Living Rev. Sol. Phys 10, 1 (2013)

  6. 6.

    , & Volcanic forcing of climate over the past 1500 years: an improved ice core-based index for climate models. J. Geophys. Res. 113, (2008)

  7. 7.

    & Technical details concerning development of a 1200-yr proxy index of global volcanism. Earth System Sci. Data 5, 187–197 (2013)

  8. 8.

    , & Underestimation of volcanic cooling in tree-ring-based reconstructions of hemispheric temperatures. Nature Geosci. 5, 202–205 (2012)

  9. 9.

    , , , & Discrepancies between the modeled and proxy-reconstructed response to volcanic forcing over the past millennium: implications and possible mechanisms. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 7617–7627 (2013)

  10. 10.

    , , , & Separating forced from chaotic climate variability over the past millennium. J. Clim. 26, 6954–6973 (2013)

  11. 11.

    et al. Tree rings and volcanic cooling. Nature Geosci. 5, 836–837 (2012)

  12. 12.

    et al. Extraterrestrial confirmation of tree-ring dating. Nature Clim. Change 4, 404–405 (2014)

  13. 13.

    , , & Testing the hypothesis of post-volcanic missing rings in temperature sensitive dendrochronological data. Dendrochronologia 31, 216–222 (2013)

  14. 14.

    , & Volcanic cooling signal in tree ring temperature records for the past millennium. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 9000–9010 (2013)

  15. 15.

    et al. An independently dated 2000-yr volcanic record from Law Dome, East Antarctica, including a new perspective on the dating of the 1450s CE eruption of Kuwae, Vanuatu. Clim. Past 8, 1929–1940 (2012)

  16. 16.

    et al. A new bipolar ice core record of volcanism from WAIS Divide and NEEM and implications for climate forcing of the last 2000 years. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 1151–1169 (2013)

  17. 17.

    et al. Insights from Antarctica on volcanic forcing during the Common Era. Nature Clim. Change 4, 693–697 (2014)

  18. 18.

    et al. European summer temperature response to annually dated volcanic eruptions over the past nine centuries. Bull. Volcanol. 75, 736 (2013)

  19. 19.

    & Climate forcing by the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L05710 (2005)

  20. 20.

    Proposed re-dating of the European ice core chronology by seven years prior to the 7th century AD. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L15813 (2008)

  21. 21.

    & Tree ring effects and ice core acidities clarify the volcanic record of the 1st millennium. Clim. Past 11, 105–114 (2015)

  22. 22.

    , , & A signature of cosmic-ray increase in AD 774–775 from tree rings in Japan. Nature 486, 240–242 (2012)

  23. 23.

    , & Another rapid event in the carbon-14 content of tree rings. Nature Commun. 4, (2013)

  24. 24.

    et al. The AD775 cosmic event revisited: the Sun is to blame. Astron. Astrophys. 552, (2013)

  25. 25.

    et al. Excursions in the 14C record at A. D. 774–775 in tree rings from Russia and America. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 3004–3010 (2014)

  26. 26.

    et al. Rapid increase in cosmogenic 14C in AD 775 measured in New Zealand kauri trees indicates short-lived increase in 14C production spanning both hemispheres. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 411, 290–297 (2015)

  27. 27.

    et al. Cosmic ray event of AD 774–775 shown in quasi-annual 10Be data from the Antarctic Dome Fuji ice core. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 84–89 (2015)

  28. 28.

    , & Production of the cosmogenic isotopes H-3, Be-7, Be-10, and Cl-36 in the Earth's atmosphere by solar and galactic cosmic rays. J. Geophys. Res. 112, A10106 (2007)

  29. 29.

    & An updated simulation of particle fluxes and cosmogenic nuclide production in the Earth's atmosphere. J. Geophys. Res. 114, D11103 (2009)

  30. 30.

    et al. A synchronized dating of three Greenland ice cores throughout the Holocene. J. Geophys. Res. 111, D13102 (2006)

  31. 31.

    et al. Source of the great A.D. 1257 mystery eruption unveiled, Samalas volcano, Rinjani Volcanic Complex, Indonesia. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 16742–16747 (2013)

  32. 32.

    et al. An automated approach for annual layer counting in ice cores. Clim. Past 8, 1881–1895 (2012)

  33. 33.

    et al. Climate change during and after the Roman Empire: reconstructing the past from scientific and historical evidence. J. Interdisc. Hist. 43, 169–220 (2012)

  34. 34.

    & Bristlecone pine tree rings and volcanic eruptions over the last 5000 yr. Quat. Res. 67, 57–68 (2007)

  35. 35.

    , , , & Northern European summer temperature variations over the Common Era from integrated tree-ring density records. J. Quat. Sci. 29, 487–494 (2014)

  36. 36.

    Causes of climate change over the past 1000 years. Science 289, 270–277 (2000)

  37. 37.

    , , , & Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 (CMIP5) simulations of climate following volcanic eruptions. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D17105 (2012)

  38. 38.

    , , & Climate response to large, high-latitude and low-latitude volcanic eruptions in the Community Climate System Model. J. Geophys. Res. 114, D15101 (2009)

  39. 39.

    et al. Inter-hemispheric asymmetry in the sea-ice response to volcanic forcing simulated by MPI-ESM (COSMOS-Mill). Earth Syst. Dyn. 5, 223–242 (2014)

  40. 40.

    Mystery cloud of Ad-536. Nature 307, 344–345 (1984)

  41. 41.

    et al. New ice core evidence for a volcanic cause of the AD 536 dust veil. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L04708 (2008)

  42. 42.

    et al. 2500 years of European climate variability and human susceptibility. Science 331, 578–582 (2011)

  43. 43.

    et al. Orbital forcing of tree-ring data. Nature Clim. Change 2, 862–866 (2012)

  44. 44.

    et al. 1738 years of Mongolian temperature variability inferred from a tree-ring width chronology of Siberian pine. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 543–546 (2001)

  45. 45.

    et al. Periodic climate cooling enhanced natural disasters and wars in China during AD 10–1900. Proc. R. Soc. B 277, 3745–3753 (2010)

  46. 46.

    Volcanic dry fogs, climate cooling, and plague pandemics in Europe and the Middle East. Clim. Change 42, 713–723 (1999)

  47. 47.

    et al. Plague dynamics are driven by climate variation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 13110–13115 (2006)

  48. 48.

    Evidence for forest clearance, agriculture, and human-induced erosion in Precolumbian El Salvador. Ann. Assoc. Am. Geogr. 97, 127–141 (2007)

  49. 49.

    & Reviewing the Mid-First Millennium BC C-14 “warp” using C-14/bristlecone pine data. Nucl. Instrum. Meth. B 294, 440–443 (2013)

  50. 50.

    et al. Eemian interglacial reconstructed from a Greenland folded ice core. Nature 493, 489–494 (2013)

  51. 51.

    Continuous ice-core chemical analyses using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36, 7–11 (2002)

  52. 52.

    & Coal burning leaves toxic heavy metal legacy in the Arctic. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 12140–12144 (2008)

  53. 53.

    et al. Seasonally resolved ice core records from West Antarctica indicate a sea ice source of sea-salt aerosol and a biomass burning source of ammonium. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 9168–9182 (2014)

  54. 54.

    , & Environmental signals in a highly resolved ice core from James Ross Island, Antarctica. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D20116 (2011)

  55. 55.

    et al. An improved continuous flow analysis system for high-resolution field measurements on ice cores. Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 8044–8050 (2008)

  56. 56.

    et al. Optimization of High-Resolution Continuous Flow Analysis for Transient Climate Signals in Ice Cores. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 4483–4489 (2011)

  57. 57.

    , , & Continuous record of microparticle concentration and size distribution in the central Greenland NGRIP ice core during the last glacial period. J. Geophys. Res. 108 (2003)

  58. 58.

    , , & Interlaboratory comparison of Be-10 concentrations in two ice cores from Central West Antarctica. Nucl. Instrum. Meth. B 294, 77–80 (2013)

  59. 59.

    et al. Variability of Be-10 and delta O-18 in snow pits from Greenland and a surface traverse from Antarctica. Nucl. Instrum. Meth. B 294, 568–572 (2013)

  60. 60.

    et al. Changes in black carbon deposition to Antarctica from two high-resolution ice core records, 1850-2000 AD. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 12, 4107–4115 (2012)

  61. 61.

    , , , & Acidity decline in Antarctic ice cores during the Little Ice Age linked to changes in atmospheric nitrate and sea salt concentrations. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 5640–5652 (2014)

  62. 62.

    et al. A first chronology for the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) ice core. Clim. Past 9, 2713–2730 (2013)

  63. 63.

    et al. Holocene tephras highlight complexity of volcanic signals in Greenland ice cores. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D21303 (2012)

  64. 64.

    et al. Greenland ice core evidence of the 79 AD Vesuvius eruption. Clim. Past 9, 1221–1232 (2013)

  65. 65.

    et al. A comparison of the volcanic records over the past 4000 years from the Greenland Ice Core Project and Dye 3 Greenland Ice Cores. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 26707–26723 (1997)

  66. 66.

    , , & The 79 AD eruption of Somma: the relationship between the date of the eruption and the southeast tephra dispersion. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 169, 87–98 (2008)

  67. 67.

    et al. Ash from Changbaishan millennium eruption recorded in Greenland ice: implications for determining the eruption's timing and impact. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 694–701 (2014)

  68. 68.

    et al. Climatic impact of the millennium eruption of Changbaishan volcano in China: new insights from high-precision radiocarbon wiggle-match dating. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 54–59 (2013)

  69. 69.

    On volcanic and other particulate turbidity anomalies. Adv. Geophys. 16, 267–296 (1973)

  70. 70.

    Effects of absorbing particles on coronas and glories. Appl. Opt. 44, 5658–5666 (2005)

  71. 71.

    & Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia Vol.3 Diaries from 164 B.C. to 61 B.C. (Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1996)

  72. 72.

    & A catalog of sunspot observations from 165 BC to AD 1684. Astron. Astrophys. (Suppl.) 70, 83–94 (1987)

  73. 73.

    et al. A new Greenland ice core chronology for the last glacial termination. J. Geophys. Res. 111, D06102 (2006)

  74. 74.

    , & Climatic signal of ice melt features in southern Greenland. Nature 293, 389–391 (1981)

  75. 75.

    , , & Atmospheric volcanic loading derived from bipolar ice cores: accounting for the spatial distribution of volcanic deposition. J. Geophys. Res. 112, D09109 (2007)

  76. 76.

    et al. Reassessing the evidence for tree-growth and inferred temperature change during the Common Era in Yamalia, northwest Siberia. Quat. Sci. Rev. 72, 83–107 (2013)

  77. 77.

    Tornetrask tree-ring width and density AD 500-2004: a test of climatic sensitivity and a new 1500-year reconstruction of north Fennoscandian summers. Clim. Dyn. 31, 843–857 (2008)

  78. 78.

    , , & Five millennia of paleotemperature from tree-rings in the Great Basin, USA. Clim. Dyn. 42, 1517–1526 (2014)

  79. 79.

    , & Evidence for a recent increase in forest growth. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 3611–3615 (2010)

  80. 80.

    , , & Recent unprecedented tree-ring growth in bristlecone pine at the highest elevations and possible causes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 20348–20353 (2009)

  81. 81.

    et al. Reduced sensitivity of recent tree-growth to temperature at high northern latitudes. Nature 391, 678–682 (1998)

  82. 82.

    et al. A new estimate of the average land surface temperature spanning 1753 to 2011. Geoinform. Geostat. Overview 1, (2013)

  83. 83.

    & Major volcanic eruptions and climate: a critical evaluation. J. Clim. 2, 566–593 (1989)

  84. 84.

    , & Variations in climate since 1602 as reconstructed from tree rings. Quat. Res. 12, 18–46 (1979)

  85. 85.

    et al. Transatlantic distribution of the Alaskan White River Ash. Geology 42, 875–878 (2014)

  86. 86.

    , & A dynamic-model of rift-zone petrogenesis and the regional petrology of Iceland. J. Petrol. 23, 28–74 (1982)

  87. 87.

    , , & The INTAV intercomparison of electron-beam microanalysis of glass by tephrochronology laboratories: results and recommendations. Quat. Int. 246, 19–47 (2011)

  88. 88.

    et al. Late Quaternary tephrostratigraphy, Ahklun mountains, SW Alaska. J. Quat. Sci. 27, 344–359 (2012)

  89. 89.

    et al. Holocene tephras in lake cores from northern British Columbia, Canada. Can. J. Earth Sci. 45, 935–947 (2008)

  90. 90.

    , & Deposits of the most recent eruption in the Southern Mono Craters, California: description, interpretation and implications for regional marker tephras. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 275, 114–131 (2014)

  91. 91.

    & The geochemistry of the Inyo volcanic chain—multiple magma systems in the Long Valley region, eastern California. J. Geophys. Res. 92, 10403–10421 (1987)

  92. 92.

    et al. The Antarctic ice core chronology (AICC2012): an optimized multi-parameter and multi-site dating approach for the last 120 thousand years. Clim. Past 9, 1733–1748 (2013)

  93. 93.

    , & Volcanoes of the World 3rd edn, (University of California Press, 2010)

Download references


We thank the many people involved in logistics, drill development and drilling, and ice-core processing and analysis in the field and our laboratories. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). We appreciate the support of the WAIS Divide Science Coordination Office (M. Twickler and J. Souney) for collection and distribution of the WAIS Divide ice core; Ice Drilling and Design and Operations (K. Dahnert) for drilling; the National Ice Core Laboratory (B. Bencivengo) for curating the core; Raytheon Polar Services (M. Kippenhan) for logistics support in Antarctica; and the 109th New York Air National Guard for airlift in Antarctica. NEEM is directed and organized by the Center of Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute and the US NSF, Office of Polar Programs. It is supported by funding agencies and institutions in Belgium (FNRS-CFB and FWO), Canada (NRCan/GSC), China (CAS), Denmark (FIST), France (IPEV, CNRS/INSU, CEA and ANR), Germany (AWI), Iceland (RannIs), Japan (NIPR), Korea (KOPRI), The Netherlands (NWO/ALW), Sweden (VR), Switzerland (SNF), the UK (NERC), and the USA (the US NSF, Office of Polar Programs). We thank B. Nolan, O. Amir, K. D. Pang, M. McCormick, A. Matthews, and B. Rossignol for assistance in surveying and/or interpreting the historical evidence. We thank S. Kuehn for commenting on possible correlations for the tephra. We thank A. Aldahan and G. Possnert for their support in the NGRIP 10Be preparations and measurements at the Department of Earth Sciences and the Tandem laboratory at Uppsala University. We gratefully acknowledge R. Kreidberg for his editorial advice. The following individual grants supported this work: NSF/OPP grants 0839093, 0968391, and 1142166 to J.R.M. for development of the Antarctic ice core records and NSF/OPP grants 0909541, 1023672, and 1204176 to J.R.M. for development of the Arctic ice core records. M.W. was funded by the Villum Foundation. K.C.W. was funded by NSF/OPP grants 0636964 and 0839137. M.C. and T.E.W. were funded by NSF/OPP grants 0839042 and 0636815. F.L. was funded by the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard, and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU Munich). C.K. was funded by a Marie Curie FP7 Integration Grant within the 7th European Union Framework Programme. M. Salzer was funded by NSF grant ATM 1203749. R.M. was funded by the Swedish Research Council (DNR2013-8421). The division of Climate and Environmental Physics, Physics Institute, University of Bern, acknowledges financial support by the SNF and the Oeschger Centre.

Author information

Author notes

    • M. Sigl

    Present address: Laboratory of Radiochemistry and Environmental Chemistry, Paul Scherrer Institut, 5232 Villigen, Switzerland


  1. Desert Research Institute, Nevada System of Higher Education, Reno, Nevada 89512, USA

    • M. Sigl
    • , J. R. McConnell
    • , N. Chellman
    • , O. J. Maselli
    •  & D. R. Pasteris
  2. Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • M. Winstrup
  3. Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • K. C. Welten
  4. School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast, Belfast BT7 1NN, UK

    • G. Plunkett
    •  & J. R. Pilcher
  5. Yale Climate and Energy Institute, and Department of History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA

    • F. Ludlow
  6. Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, 8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland

    • U. Büntgen
  7. Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, 3012 Bern, Switzerland

    • U. Büntgen
    • , H. Fischer
    •  & S. Schüpbach
  8. Global Change Research Centre AS CR, 60300 Brno, Czech Republic

    • U. Büntgen
  9. Department of Physics, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, USA

    • M. Caffee
    •  & T. E. Woodruff
  10. Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, USA

    • M. Caffee
  11. Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • D. Dahl-Jensen
    • , J. P. Steffensen
    •  & B. M. Vinther
  12. Climate and Environmental Physics, University of Bern, 3012 Bern, Switzerland

    • H. Fischer
    •  & S. Schüpbach
  13. Alfred-Wegener-Institut Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung, 27570 Bremerhaven, Germany

    • S. Kipfstuhl
  14. Department of History, The University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK

    • C. Kostick
  15. Department of Geology, Quaternary Sciences, Lund University, 22362 Lund, Sweden

    • F. Mekhaldi
    •  & R. Muscheler
  16. British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

    • R. Mulvaney
  17. The Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • M. Salzer


  1. Search for M. Sigl in:

  2. Search for M. Winstrup in:

  3. Search for J. R. McConnell in:

  4. Search for K. C. Welten in:

  5. Search for G. Plunkett in:

  6. Search for F. Ludlow in:

  7. Search for U. Büntgen in:

  8. Search for M. Caffee in:

  9. Search for N. Chellman in:

  10. Search for D. Dahl-Jensen in:

  11. Search for H. Fischer in:

  12. Search for S. Kipfstuhl in:

  13. Search for C. Kostick in:

  14. Search for O. J. Maselli in:

  15. Search for F. Mekhaldi in:

  16. Search for R. Mulvaney in:

  17. Search for R. Muscheler in:

  18. Search for D. R. Pasteris in:

  19. Search for J. R. Pilcher in:

  20. Search for M. Salzer in:

  21. Search for S. Schüpbach in:

  22. Search for J. P. Steffensen in:

  23. Search for B. M. Vinther in:

  24. Search for T. E. Woodruff in:


M. Sigl designed the study with input from J.R.M., M.W., G.P., and F.L. The manuscript was written by M. Sigl, M.W., F.L., and J.R.M., with contributions from K.C.W., G.P., U.B., and B.M.V. in interpretation of the measurements. Ice-core chemistry measurements were performed by J.R.M., M. Sigl, O.J.M., N.C., D.R.P. (NEEM, B40, TUNU2013), and by S.S., H.F., R. Mulvaney (NEEM). K.C.W., T.E.W., and M.C. completed ice core 10Be measurements. F.M. and R. Muscheler were responsible for the NGRIP ice core 10Be measurements. M. Sigl, M.W., B.M.V., and J.R.M. analysed ice-core data and developed age models. F.L. and C.K. analysed historical documentary data. G.P. and J.R.P. performed ice-core tephra analysis and data interpretation. U.B. and M. Salzer contributed tree-ring data. D.D.-J., B.M.V., J.P.S., S.K., and O.J.M. were involved in drilling of the NEEM ice core. TUNU2013 was drilled by M. Sigl, N.C. and O.J.M., and the B40 ice core was drilled by S.K. and made available for chemistry measurements. D.D.-J. and J.P.S. were responsible for NEEM project management, sample distribution, logistics support, and management. All authors contributed towards improving the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. R. McConnell.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains a Supplementary File guide

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Data 2

    This file contains 3 Supplementary data tables – see guide for details.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data 1

    This file contains ice core meta data and 10Be results – see guide for details.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Data 3

    This file contains data from Greenland ice cores– see guide for details.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Data 4

    This file contains data from Antarctica ice cores– see guide for details.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Data 5

    This file contains volcanic reconstruction data– see guide for details.


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.