Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Unusual volcanic episode rapidly triggered Little Ice Age, researchers find

30.01.2012
New evidence from northern ice sheets suggests that volcanic eruptions triggered the multiple-century cool spell known as the Little Ice Age, and pinpoints the start of the climate shift to the final decades of the 13th century. Researchers have long known that the Little Ice Age began sometime after the Middle Ages and lasted into the late 19th century. But, estimates of its onset have ranged from the 13th to the 16th century.

According to the new study, the Little Ice began abruptly between 1275 and 1300 A.D., triggered by repeated, explosive volcanism and sustained by a self- perpetuating sea ice-ocean feedback in the North Atlantic Ocean, according to Gifford Miller, a geological sciences professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU-Boulder), who led the study. The primary evidence comes from radiocarbon dates from dead vegetation emerging from rapidly melting icecaps on Baffin Island, combined with ice and sediment core data from the poles and Iceland, and from sea-ice climate model simulations, said Miller.

He and his colleagues will publish their findings on 31 January in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

During the cool spell, advancing glaciers in mountain valleys in northern Europe destroyed towns. Famous 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. There is evidence also that the Little Ice Age affected places far from Europe, including South America and China.

While scientific estimates regarding the onset of the Little Ice Age extend from the 13th century to the 16th century, there has been little consensus, said Miller. "The dominant way scientists have defined the little Ice Age is by the expansion of big valley glaciers in the Alps and in Norway," said Miller. "But the time in which European glaciers advanced far enough to demolish villages would have been long after the onset of the cold period," said Miller, a Fellow at his university's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Most scientists think the Little Ice Age was caused either by decreased summer solar radiation, erupting volcanoes that cooled the planet by ejecting shiny aerosol particles that reflected sunlight back into space, or a combination of both, said Miller.

The new study suggests that the onset of the little Ice Age was caused by an unusual, 50-year- long episode of four massive tropical volcanic eruptions. Climate models used in the new study showed that the persistence of cold summers following the eruptions is best explained by sea-ice ocean feedbacks originating in the North Atlantic Ocean.

"This is the first time anyone has clearly identified the specific onset of the cold times marking the start of the Little Ice Age," said Miller. "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."

The researchers who contributed to the study include scientists and students from CU-Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, the University of California Irvine and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Icelandic Science Foundation.

As part of the study, Miller and his colleagues radiocarbon-dated roughly 150 samples of dead plant material with roots intact collected from beneath receding ice margins of ice caps on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. There was 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.

Both low-lying and higher altitude plants all died at roughly the same time, indicating the onset of the Little Ice Age on Baffin Island -- the fifth largest island in the world -- was abrupt. A more gradual start of the Ice Age would have affected the upper-altitude vegetation first, since it would have been colder to start with at those elevations. 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 team analyzed sediment cores from a glacial lake linked to the 367- square-mile Langjokull 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 volcanic deposits, called tephra, from known historic 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, he said.

"That showed us the signal we got from Baffin Island was not just a local signal, it was a North Atlantic signal," said Miller. "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." Average summer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere did not return to those of the warmer medieval times until the 20th century, he said.

The team used NCAR's Community Climate System model to test the effects of volcanic cooling on Arctic sea ice extent and mass. The model, which simulated various sea ice conditions from about 1150-1700 A.D., showed several large, closely spaced eruptions could have cooled the Northern Hemisphere enough to trigger Arctic sea-ice growth.

The simulations showed 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. Without mixing taking place, the water that flowed back to the Arctic was colder, helping sustain large areas of sea ice and creating a self-sustaining feedback loop long after the effects of the volcanic aerosols subsided, he said.

The researchers set the solar radiation at a constant level in the simulations, and Miller said the Little Ice Age likely would have occurred without decreased summer solar radiation at the time.

"Estimates of the sun's variability over time are getting smaller; it's now thought by some scientists to have varied little more in the last millennium than during a standard 11-year solar cycle," he said.

Notes for Journalists
Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) of educational and scientific institutions who have registered with AGU can download a PDF copy of this paper in press by clicking on this link:

http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2011GL050168

Or, you may order a copy of the final paper by emailing your request to Kate Ramsayer at kramsayer@agu.org. Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number.

Neither the paper nor this press release are under embargo.

Title:
"Abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks"
Authors:
Gifford H. Miller: INSTAAR and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA, and Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland;

Áslaug Geirsdóttir: Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland;

Yafang Zhong: INSTAAR and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA;

Darren J. Larsen: INSTAAR and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA, and Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland;

Bette L. Otto-Bliesner, Marika M. Holland, David A. Bailey: National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA;

Kurt A. Refsnider, Scott J. Lehman: Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland;

John R. Southon: Earth System Science Department, Univ. California Irvine, USA;

Chance Anderson: INSTAAR and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA;

Helgi Bjornsson: Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland;

Thorvaldur Thordarson: School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom.

Contact information for the authors:
Gifford Miller, Phone: +1 (303) 492-6962, Email: Gmiller@colorado.edu Bette Otto-Bliesner, Phone: +1 (303) 497-1723

Kate Ramsayer | American Geophysical Union
Further information:
http://www.agu.org

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Colorado River's connection with the ocean was a punctuated affair
16.11.2017 | University of Oregon

nachricht Researchers create largest, longest multiphysics earthquake simulation to date
14.11.2017 | Gauss Centre for Supercomputing

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

Im Focus: Researchers Develop Data Bus for Quantum Computer

The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...

Im Focus: Wrinkles give heat a jolt in pillared graphene

Rice University researchers test 3-D carbon nanostructures' thermal transport abilities

Pillared graphene would transfer heat better if the theoretical material had a few asymmetric junctions that caused wrinkles, according to Rice University...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

NASA detects solar flare pulses at Sun and Earth

17.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

NIST scientists discover how to switch liver cancer cell growth from 2-D to 3-D structures

17.11.2017 | Health and Medicine

The importance of biodiversity in forests could increase due to climate change

17.11.2017 | Studies and Analyses

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>