Last phase of the Little Ice Age forced by volcanic eruptions

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During the first half of the nineteenth century, several large tropical volcanic eruptions occurred within less than three decades. The global climate effects of the 1815 Tambora eruption have been investigated, but those of an eruption in 1808 or 1809 whose source is unknown and the eruptions in the 1820s and 1830s have received less attention. Here we analyse the effect of the sequence of eruptions in observations, global three-dimensional climate field reconstructions and coupled climate model simulations. All the eruptions were followed by substantial drops of summer temperature over the Northern Hemisphere land areas. In addition to the direct radiative effect, which lasts 2–3 years, the simulated ocean–atmosphere heat exchange sustained cooling for several years after these eruptions, which affected the slow components of the climate system. Africa was hit by two decades of drought, global monsoons weakened and the tracks of low-pressure systems over the North Atlantic moved south. The low temperatures and increased precipitation in Europe triggered the last phase of the advance of Alpine glaciers. Only after the 1850s did the transition into the period of anthropogenic warming start. We conclude that the end of the Little Ice Age was marked by the recovery from a sequence of volcanic eruptions, which makes it difficult to define a single pre-industrial baseline.

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Fig. 1: Climate series for the last part of the LIA.
Fig. 2: Post-volcanic anomalies in April–September in the palaeo-reanalysis (ensemble mean).
Fig. 3: Change in global monsoon systems.
Fig. 4: Global annual means of energy fluxes, temperature and ocean heat content in coupled model simulations (ensemble mean and range).
Fig. 5: Annual mean sea-surface temperature changes in HadCM3, FUPSOL and reconstructions following the four volcanic eruptions of 1808, 1815, 1831 and 1835.

Data availability

The palaeo-reanalysis is available from and instrumental temperature data from The dryness indices for Africa are available from and the Australian monsoon data from The pressure data used are available from ISPD, FUPSOL and HadCM3 model output can be downloaded from

Code availability

Code for the calculation of subtropical jet latitude and northern topical edge is from Code and input data for the reconstruction of Alpine summer temperature can be downloaded from


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The work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (projects 162668, 169676, CRSII2-147659 and a personal grant to M.T.), by MeteoSwiss (CH2018) and by H2020 (ERC Grant PALAEO-RA, 787574). Simulations were conducted at the Swiss Supercomputer Centre CSCS. G.C.H. and A.S. were supported by the ERC-funded project TITAN (EC-320691) and by NERC under the Belmont forum, grant PacMedy (NE/P006752/1).

Author information

S.B. designed the study and performed most of the analyses. J.Franke performed the reanalysis. C.C.R. performed the FUPSOL model simulations and A.S. performed the HadCM3 model simulations. C.C.R., A.M., M.W. and A.S. processed the model simulations. M.T. performed the temperature reconstruction. J.Franke and J.Flückiger performed some of the analyses, S.U.N., D.S. and H.J.Z. analysed the glacier data. G.C.H. assisted the analysis and interpretation of the model data. All the authors engaged in the discussion of the results and contributed to writing the paper.

Correspondence to Stefan Brönnimann.

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Brönnimann, S., Franke, J., Nussbaumer, S.U. et al. Last phase of the Little Ice Age forced by volcanic eruptions. Nat. Geosci. 12, 650–656 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0402-y

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