Via AGU, and the “science is settled” department, once again we learn things we didn’t know about climate.
In most cases, the annual East Asian Monsoon brings heavy rains and widespread flooding to southeast China and drought conditions to the northeast. At various points throughout history, however, large volcanic eruptions have upset the regular behavior of the monsoon.
Sulfate aerosols injected high into the atmosphere by powerful eruptions can lower the land-sea temperature contrast that powers the monsoon circulation. How this altered aerosol forcing affects precipitation is not entirely clear, however, as climate models do not always agree with observations of the nature and scale of the effect.
Using two independent records of historical volcanic activity along with two different measures of rainfall, including one 3,000-year long record derived from local flood and drought observations, Zhuo et al. analyzes how large volcanic eruptions changed the conditions on the ground for the period 1368 to 1911. Understanding the effect of sulfate aerosols on monsoon behavior is particularly important now, as researchers explore aerosol seeding as a means of climate engineering.
The authors find that large Northern Hemispheric volcanic eruptions cause strong droughts in much of eastern China. The drought begins in the north in the second or third summer following an eruption and slowly moves southward over the next 2 to 3 years. They find that the severity of the drought scales with the amount of aerosol injected into the atmosphere, and that it takes 4 to 5 years for precipitation to recover. The drying pattern agrees with observations from three large modern eruptions.
China’s northeast is the country’s major grain-producing region. The results suggest that any geoengineering schemes meant to mimic the effect of a large volcanic eruption could potentially trigger devastating consequences for China’s food supply.
Proxy evidence for China’s monsoon precipitation response to volcanic aerosols over the past seven centuries
The effect of volcanic aerosols on China’s monsoon precipitation over the past 700 years has been studied using two independently compiled histories of volcanism combined with the Monsoon Asia Drought Atlas. For both reconstructions, four categories of eruptions are distinguished based on the character of their Northern Hemisphere (NH) injection; then Superposed Epoch Analysis (SEA) with a 10,000 Monte Carlo resampling procedure is undertaken for each category and also each individual grid. Results show a statistically significant (at 90% confidence level) drying trend over mainland China from year 1 to year 4 after the eruptions, and the more sulfate aerosol that is injected into the NH stratosphere, the more severe this drying trend. In comparison, a minor wetting trend is observed in the years following Southern Hemisphere-only injections. Results from spatial distribution of the SEA show (1) a southward movement of the significant dry areas in eastern China from year 0 to year 2 after volcanic perturbations that are either equal to or double the size of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption (15 T sulfate aerosols in NH) and (2) northeast and northwest China experienced substantial droughts in years 2 to 5. These results are in good agreement with a SEA analysis of the Chinese Historical Drought Disaster Index compiled from historical meteorological records. Our findings illustrate the important role stratospheric aerosols have played in altering China’s precipitation during the summer monsoon season and can shed new light on the possible effects that stratospheric geoengineering may have on China’s precipitation.
A volcanic winter from an eruption in the late 17th century BCE has been claimed by some researchers to correlate with entries in Chinese records documenting the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China. According to the Bamboo Annals, the collapse of the dynasty and the rise of the Shang dynasty, approximately dated to 1618 BCE, were accompanied by “yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals”.