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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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


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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.

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  3. 3.

    Supplementary Data 4

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

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    Supplementary Data 5

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

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