The eruption of Samalas in Indonesia in 1257 ranks among the largest sulfur-rich eruptions of the Common Era with sulfur deposition in ice cores reaching twice the volume of the Tambora eruption in 1815. Sedimentological analyses of deposits confirm the exceptional size of the event, which had both an eruption magnitude and a volcanic explosivity index of 7. During the Samalas eruption, more than 40 km3 of dense magma was expelled and the eruption column is estimated to have reached altitudes of 43 km. However, the climatic response to the Samalas event is debated since climate model simulations generally predict a stronger and more prolonged surface air cooling of Northern Hemisphere summers than inferred from tree-ring-based temperature reconstructions. Here, we draw on historical archives, ice-core data and tree-ring records to reconstruct the spatial and temporal climate response to the Samalas eruption. We find that 1258 and 1259 experienced some of the coldest Northern Hemisphere summers of the past millennium. However, cooling across the Northern Hemisphere was spatially heterogeneous. Western Europe, Siberia and Japan experienced strong cooling, coinciding with warmer-than-average conditions over Alaska and northern Canada. We suggest that in North America, volcanic radiative forcing was modulated by a positive phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation. Contemporary records attest to severe famines in England and Japan, but these began prior to the eruption. We conclude that the Samalas eruption aggravated existing crises, but did not trigger the famines.

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S.G., C.C., M.S. and O.V.C. acknowledge support from the Era.Net RUSplus project ELVECS (SNF project number: IZRPZ0_164735). This study benefited from data gathered within the ANR CEPS GREENLAND project. V.S.M. received support from the Russian Science Foundation (project no. 15-14-30011). R. Hantemirov kindly provided a millennium-long chronology. The authors are grateful to W. S. Atwell and W. Wayne-Farris for discussions on historical sources from Japan as well as to M. Luisa Avila for her help with Muslim sources from Mediaeval Spain. S.G. and C.C. are very grateful to S. Finet, L. Fazan and P. Guérin for their help with R-scripts, translations and fruitful discussions, respectively.

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  1. Dendrolab.ch, Institute of Geological Sciences, University of Berne, Baltzerstrasse 1+3, CH-3012 Berne, Switzerland

    • Sébastien Guillet
    • , Markus Stoffel
    •  & Olga V. Churakova (Sidorova)
  2. Geolab, UMR 6042 CNRS, Université Blaise Pascal, 4 rue Ledru, F-63057 Clermont-Ferrand, France

    • Christophe Corona
  3. Climatic Change and Climate Impacts, Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva, 66 Boulevard Carl Vogt, CH-1205 Geneva, Switzerland

    • Markus Stoffel
    •  & Martin Beniston
  4. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Geneva, rue des Maraîchers 13, CH-1205 Geneva, Switzerland

    • Markus Stoffel
  5. Laboratoire d’Océanographie et du Climat: Expérimentations et approches numériques, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, 4 place Jussieu, F-75252 Paris Cedex 05, France

    • Myriam Khodri
  6. Laboratoire de Géographie Physique, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, 1 place Aristide Briand, 92195 Meudon, France

    • Franck Lavigne
  7. NCAS-Climate, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6BB, UK

    • Pablo Ortega
  8. Irstea, UR ETNA/Université Grenoble-Alpes, 2 rue de la Papeterie, F-38402 Saint Martin d’Hères, France

    • Nicolas Eckert
    •  & Pascal Dkengne Sielenou
  9. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (CEA-CNRS-UVSQ UMR8212, Institut Pierre Simon Laplace, Université Paris Saclay), L’Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Valérie Daux
    •  & Valérie Masson-Delmotte
  10. V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forest, 660036 Krasnoyarsk, Akademgorodok, Russian Federation

    • Olga V. Churakova (Sidorova)
  11. Siberian Federal University, RU-660041 Krasnoyarsk, Russia

    • Olga V. Churakova (Sidorova)
    •  & Vladimir S. Myglan
  12. Department of Environmental Science, William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey 07470, USA

    • Nicole Davi
  13. Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, University of Arizona, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • Nicole Davi
  14. CCJ, UMR 7299 CNRS, Maison méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’homme 5 rue du château de l’horloge, 13094 Aix-en-Provence cedex, France

    • Jean-Louis Edouard
  15. Key Laboratory of Land Surface Pattern and Simulation, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China

    • Yong Zhang
  16. Center for Excellence & Innovation in Tibetan Plateau Earth System Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China

    • Yong Zhang
  17. Department of Geography, University of Western Ontario, 1151 Richmond Street, London, Ontario N6A 5C2, Canada

    • Brian H. Luckman
  18. Aix-Marseille Université, CNRS, IRD, Collège de France, CEREGE, ECCOREV, F-13545 Aix-en-Provence, France

    • Joël Guiot
  19. Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Downing Place, Cambridge CB2 3EN, UK

    • Clive Oppenheimer


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S.G., C.C., M.S. and F.L. designed the research. S.G. investigated historical archives and translated the narrative sources from Latin to English. N.E. and P.D.S. computed return periods from GHD series provided by V.D., S.G. and C.C. produced the NH reconstructions with input from N.E. and J.G. for statistical analyses. O.V.C., N.D., J.-L.E., Y.Z., V.S.M., P.O. and V.M.-D. provided data for the elaboration of the proxy network. S.G., C.C., M.S. and C.O. wrote the paper with input from P.O., V.M.-D., B.H.L., O.V.C. and M.K. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Sébastien Guillet or Markus Stoffel.

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