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Disproportionately strong climate forcing from extratropical explosive volcanic eruptions


Extratropical volcanic eruptions are commonly thought to be less effective at driving large-scale surface cooling than tropical eruptions. However, recent minor extratropical eruptions have produced a measurable climate impact, and proxy records suggest that the most extreme Northern Hemisphere cold period of the Common Era was initiated by an extratropical eruption in 536 ce. Using ice-core-derived volcanic stratospheric sulfur injections and Northern Hemisphere summer temperature reconstructions from tree rings, we show here that in proportion to their estimated stratospheric sulfur injection, extratropical explosive eruptions since 750 ce have produced stronger hemispheric cooling than tropical eruptions. Stratospheric aerosol simulations demonstrate that for eruptions with a sulfur injection magnitude and height equal to that of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption, extratropical eruptions produce time-integrated radiative forcing anomalies over the Northern Hemisphere extratropics up to 80% greater than tropical eruptions, as decreases in aerosol lifetime are overwhelmed by the enhanced radiative impact associated with the relative confinement of aerosol to a single hemisphere. The model results are consistent with the temperature reconstructions, and elucidate how the radiative forcing produced by extratropical eruptions is strongly dependent on the eruption season and sulfur injection height within the stratosphere.

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The Matlab scripts used for the analyses described in this study can be obtained from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Data availability

The VSSI estimates used in this study are available in the World Data Center for Climate hosted by the German Climate Computing Center (DKRZ) with the identifier The Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstructions used are available from the NOAA/World Data Service for Paleoclimatology archives via the links, and Output from the MAECHAM5-HAM simulations is available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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This work was supported by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research in Germany (BMBF) through the research program “MiKlip” (grant nos FKZ:01LP130B, 01LP1130A and 01LP1517B). M.T. additionally acknowledges support by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) in the framework of the priority programme “Antarctic Research with comparative investigations in Arctic ice areas” through grant no. TO 967/1-1. K.K. and M.Sigl acknowledge support through the NFR project “VIKINGS” (project no. 275191). C.T. additionally acknowledges support from the European Union project StratoClim (FP7-ENV.2013.6.1-2). Computations were performed at the German Climate Computer Center (DKRZ). The authors thank L. Schneider and co-workers for making their Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstruction publically available. This paper is a product of the Volcanic Impacts on Climate and Society (VICS) working group, as part of the Past Global Changes (PAGES) project, which in turn received support from the US National Science Foundation and the Swiss Academy of Sciences.

Author information

M.T., K.K., C.T. and H.S. designed the model experiments. M.T. performed the model simulations and analysis with input from K.K., C.T. and H.S. M.T. performed the analysis of the tree-ring-temperature reconstructions and VSSIs with input from M.Sigl, M.Stoffel and R.W. M.T. led the manuscript writing with input from all the co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Matthew Toohey.

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Fig. 1: Reconstructed post-volcanic Northern Hemisphere temperature response to Northern Hemisphere extratropical and tropical eruptions in relation to VSSI.
Fig. 2: Simulated volcanic stratospheric aerosol burdens and lifetimes for varying eruption latitude, season and injection height.
Fig. 3: Simulated global mean volcanic aerosol properties for varying eruption latitude, season and injection height.
Fig. 4: Simulated volcanic SAOD and ERF over the NHET for varying eruption latitude, season and injection height.