Guest commentary by Jonny McAneney
Volcanism can have an important impact on climate. When a large volcano erupts it can inject vast amounts of dust and sulphur compounds into the stratosphere, where they alter the radiation balance. While the suspended dust can temporarily block sunlight, the dominant effect in volcanic forcing is the sulphur, which combines with water to form sulphuric acid droplets. These stratospheric aerosols dramatically change the reflectivity, and absorption profile of the upper atmosphere, causing the stratosphere to heat, and the surface to cool; resulting in climatic changes on hemispheric and global scales.
Interrogating tree rings and ice cores
Annually-resolved ice core and tree-ring chronologies provide opportunities for understanding past volcanic forcing and the consequent climatic effects and impacts on human populations. It is common knowledge that you can tell the age of a tree by counting its rings, but it is also interesting to note that the size and physiology of each ring provides information on growing conditions when the ring formed. By constructing long tree ring chronologies, using suitable species of trees, it is possible to reconstruct a precisely-dated annual record of climatic conditions.
Ice cores can provide a similar annual record of the chemical and isotopic composition of the atmosphere, in particular volcanic markers such as layers of volcanic acid and tephra. However, ice cores can suffer from ambiguous layers that introduce errors into the dating of these layers of volcanic acid. To short-circuit this, attempts have been made to identify know historical eruptions within the ice records, such as Öraefajökull (1362) and Vesuvius (AD 79). This can become difficult since the ice chronologies can only be checked by finding and definitively identifying tephra (volcanic glass shards) that can be attributed to these key eruptions; sulphate peaks in the ice are not volcano specific.
Thus, it is fundamentally important to have chronological agreement between historical, tree-ring and ice core chronologies: The ice cores record the magnitude and frequency of volcanic eruptions, with the trees recording the climatic response, and historical records evidencing human responses to these events.
But they don’t quite line up…