Peter Hess at Inverse
Climate change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Many factors contribute to it, not the least of which is volcanic activity. And while you probably think of a volcano in terms of the heat produced, the gas and dust it emits actually affect climate change a lot more than you might think.
In a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research report that major volcanic eruptions could cause more disruption to the global climate than they have in the past. By examining the conditions that followed the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora in 1815, the Boulder, Colorado scientists predict what would happen if this type of major eruption occurred in 2085.
The potential alterations to the climate will not be in the Earth’s favor. While the scientists predict that the cooling that will follow a future eruption of that scale would be even more extreme, it will not offset the effects of a warming climate. Furthermore, they predict that the eruption will disrupt the water cycle, decreasing global precipitation.
The effects of a “volcanic winter” occur as the ash and smoke from an eruption obscure rays from the sun, decreasing their ability to heat the Earth. When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, thousands of people died instantly, and it is considered the most destructive eruption on Earth in 10,000 years. The dust and gas it emitted into the atmosphere altered global climate for a year afterward, which is why 1816 is known as “The Year Without a Summer.” Global temperatures dipped so severely that crops failed, even in places far away from the volcano. Farms in the northern United States suffered frost damage in August, as did farms in Europe. The massive volcanic eruption triggered a global subsistence crisis, which is estimated to have killed an additional 10,000 people.
Using computer climate models, the researchers of the new study concluded that, if an eruption like Mount Tambora’s happens in 2085, the Earth will cool up to 40 percent more than the 1815 eruption, assuming current rates of climate change continue. However, they also predict that the cooling will be spread out over several years.
The reason the temperature change will so drawn out, they explain, is because ocean temperature is becoming increasingly stratified — that is, separated into layers based on temperature. As this happens, the surface water in the ocean will be increasingly less able to moderate the cooling effects of the eruption, causing a longer and more severe cooling event. Because the cooling in 1815-1816 occurred at a time when ocean temperature was not as stratified, it was absorbed to some degree by the water.
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