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


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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Figure 1: Annual 10Be ice-core records and post-volcanic cooling from tree rings under existing ice-core chronologies.
Figure 2: Re-dated ice-core, non-sea-salt sulfur records from Greenland and Antarctica in relation to growth anomalies in the N-Tree composite.
Figure 3: Global volcanic aerosol forcing and Northern Hemisphere temperature variations for the past 2,500 years.
Figure 4: Post-volcanic cooling.
Figure 5: Volcanism and temperature variability during the migration period (500–705 ce).


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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




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. R. McConnell.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Location of study sites.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 Table 1 Ice-core dating
Extended Data Table 2 Annual-layer results using the StratiCounter program
Extended Data Table 3 Historical documentary evidence for key volcanic eruption age markers 536-939 ce
Extended Data Table 4 Large volcanic eruptions during the past 2,500 years
Extended Data Table 5 Post-volcanic cooling

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains a Supplementary File guide (PDF 80 kb)

Supplementary Data 1

This file contains ice core meta data and 10Be results – see guide for details. (XLSX 21 kb)

Supplementary Data 2

This file contains 3 Supplementary data tables – see guide for details. (PDF 1338 kb)

Supplementary Data 3

This file contains data from Greenland ice cores– see guide for details. (XLSX 8918 kb)

Supplementary Data 4

This file contains data from Antarctica ice cores– see guide for details. (XLSX 6765 kb)

Supplementary Data 5

This file contains volcanic reconstruction data– see guide for details. (XLSX 46 kb)

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Sigl, M., Winstrup, M., McConnell, J. et al. Timing and climate forcing of volcanic eruptions for the past 2,500 years. Nature 523, 543–549 (2015).

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