From NCAR/UCAR, they’re still trying to stamp out solar influence as a potential cause of the Little Ice Age. One of the things I wonder about is that during low sunspot activity, does the reduced solar-magnetic influence have any effect on Earth’s plate tectoncs and vulcanism? Does a reduced solar-magnetic influence prompt more volcanism? We may get the answer to this question in the coming years as the Ap solar-geomagnetic activity index is at an all-time low in the records.
BOULDER — A new international study may answer contentious questions about the onset and persistence of Earth’s Little Ice Age, a period of widespread cooling that lasted for hundreds of years until the late 19th century.
The study, led by the University of Colorado Boulder with co-authors at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and other organizations, suggests that an unusual, 50-year-long episode of four massive tropical volcanic eruptions triggered the Little Ice Age between 1275 and 1300 A.D. The persistence of cold summers following the eruptions is best explained by a subsequent expansion of sea ice and a related weakening of Atlantic currents, according to computer simulations conducted for the study.
The study, which used analyses of patterns of dead vegetation, ice and sediment core data, and powerful computer climate models, provides new evidence in a longstanding scientific debate over the onset of the Little Ice Age. Scientists have theorized that the Little Ice Age was caused by decreased summer solar radiation, erupting volcanoes that cooled the planet by ejecting sulfates and other aerosol particles that reflected sunlight back into space, or a combination of the two.
“This is the first time anyone has clearly identified the specific onset of the cold times marking the start of the Little Ice Age,” says lead author Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado Boulder. “We also have provided an understandable climate feedback system that explains how this cold period could be sustained for a long period of time. If the climate system is hit again and again by cold conditions over a relatively short period—in this case, from volcanic eruptions—there appears to be a cumulative cooling effect.”
“Our simulations showed that the volcanic eruptions may have had a profound cooling effect,” says NCAR scientist Bette Otto-Bliesner, a co-author of the study. “The eruptions could have triggered a chain reaction, affecting sea ice and ocean currents in a way that lowered temperatures for centuries.”
The study appears this week in Geophysical Research Letters. The research team includes co-authors from the University of Iceland, the University of California Irvine, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, NCAR’s sponsor, and the Icelandic Science Foundation.
Far-flung regions of ice
Scientific estimates regarding the onset of the Little Ice Age range from the 13th century to the 16th century, but there is little consensus, Miller says. Although the cooling temperatures may have affected places as far away as South America and China, they were particularly evident in northern Europe. Advancing glaciers in mountain valleys destroyed towns, and paintings from the period depict people ice-skating on the Thames River in London and canals in the Netherlands, places that were ice-free before and after the Little Ice Age.
“The dominant way scientists have defined the Little Ice Age is by the expansion of big valley glaciers in the Alps and in Norway,” says Miller, a fellow at CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “But the time in which European glaciers advanced far enough to demolish villages would have been long after the onset of the cold period.”
Miller and his colleagues radiocarbon-dated roughly 150 samples of dead plant material with roots intact, collected from beneath receding margins of ice caps on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. They found a large cluster of “kill dates” between 1275 and 1300 A.D., indicating the plants had been frozen and engulfed by ice during a relatively sudden event.
The team saw a second spike in plant kill dates at about 1450 A.D., indicating the quick onset of a second major cooling event.
To broaden the study, the researchers analyzed sediment cores from a glacial lake linked to the 367-square-mile Langjökull ice cap in the central highlands of Iceland that reaches nearly a mile high. The annual layers in the cores—which can be reliably dated by using tephra deposits from known historic volcanic eruptions on Iceland going back more than 1,000 years—suddenly became thicker in the late 13th century and again in the 15th century due to increased erosion caused by the expansion of the ice cap as the climate cooled.
“That showed us the signal we got from Baffin Island was not just a local signal, it was a North Atlantic signal,” Miller says. “This gave us a great deal more confidence that there was a major perturbation to the Northern Hemisphere climate near the end of the 13th century.”
The team used the Community Climate System Model, which was developed by scientists at NCAR and the Department of Energy with colleagues at other organizations, to test the effects of volcanic cooling on Arctic sea ice extent and mass. The model, which simulated various sea ice conditions from about 1150 to 1700 A.D., showed several large, closely spaced eruptions could have cooled the Northern Hemisphere enough to trigger the expansion of Arctic sea ice.
The model showed that sustained cooling from volcanoes would have sent some of the expanding Arctic sea ice down along the eastern coast of Greenland until it eventually melted in the North Atlantic. Since sea ice contains almost no salt, when it melted the surface water became less dense, preventing it from mixing with deeper North Atlantic water. This weakened heat transport back to the Arctic and created a self-sustaining feedback on the sea ice long after the effects of the volcanic aerosols subsided, according to the simulations.
The researchers set solar radiation at a constant level in the climate models. The simulations indicated that the Little Ice Age likely would have occurred without decreased summer solar radiation at the time, Miller says.
About the article
Title: Abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks
Authors: Gifford Miller, Áslaug Geirsdóttir, Yafang Zhong, Darren J. Larsen, Bette L. Otto-Bliesner, Marika M. Holland, David A. Bailey, Kurt A. Refsnider, Scott J. Lehman, John R. Southon, Chance Anderson, Helgi Bjornsson, Thorvaldur Thordarson,
Publication: Geophysical Research Letters
Here’s the paper abstract, the actual paper is not yet available (another science by press release that we can’t check).
GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, doi:10.1029/2011GL050168
Abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks
- Little Ice Age began abruptly in two steps
- Decadally paced explosive volcanism can explain the onset
- A sea-ice/ocean feedback can sustain the abrupt cooling
Gifford H Miller
Darren J Larsen
Bette L Otto-Bliesner
Marika M Holland
David Anthony Bailey
Kurt A. Refsnider
Scott J. Lehman
John R. Southon
Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures over the past 8000 years have been paced by the slow decrease in summer insolation resulting from the precession of the equinoxes. However, the causes of superposed century-scale cold summer anomalies, of which the Little Ice Age (LIA) is the most extreme, remain debated, largely because the natural forcings are either weak or, in the case of volcanism, short lived. Here we present precisely dated records of ice-cap growth from Arctic Canada and Iceland showing that LIA summer cold and ice growth began abruptly between 1275 and 1300 AD, followed by a substantial intensification 1430-1455 AD. Intervals of sudden ice growth coincide with two of the most volcanically perturbed half centuries of the past millennium. A transient climate model simulation shows that explosive volcanism produces abrupt summer cooling at these times, and that cold summers can be maintained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks long after volcanic aerosols are removed. Our results suggest that the onset of the LIA can be linked to an unusual 50-year-long episode with four large sulfur-rich explosive eruptions, each with global sulfate loading >60 Tg. The persistence of cold summers is best explained by consequent sea-ice/ocean feedbacks during a hemispheric summer insolation minimum; large changes in solar irradiance are not required.
Received 29 November 2011; accepted 30 December 2011.
Citation: Miller, G. H., et al. (2012), Abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks, Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2011GL050168, in press.