"The sun was dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months; each day it shone for about four hours; and still this light was only a feeble shadow; the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes." As this Michael the Syrian quote regarding the weather of 536 A.D. demonstrates, a climate catastrophe that blots out the sun can really spoil your day. Procopius of Caesarea remarked: "During this year [536 A.D.] a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness. and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear." Many documents from 535 - 536 A.D.--the time of King Arthur in Britain--speak of the terrible "dry fog" or cloud of dust that obscured the sun, causing widespread crop failures in Europe, and summer frosts, drought, and famine in China. Tree ring studies in Europe confirm several years of very poor growth around that time, and ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica show highly elevated levels of atmospheric sulfuric acid dust existed.

Though some scientists believe the climate calamity of 535-536 A.D. was due to a comet or asteroid hitting the Earth, it is widely thought that the event was probably caused by the most massive volcanic eruption of the past 1500 years. This eruption threw so much sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas into the stratosphere that a "Volcanic Winter" resulted. Sulfur dioxide reacts with water to form sulfuric acid droplets (aerosol particles), which are highly reflective and reduce the amount of incoming sunlight. The potential eruption that led to the 535 - 536 A.D. climate calamity would have likely been a magnitude 7 event on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI)--a "super colossal" eruption that one can expect to occur only once every 1000 years. The Volcanic Explosivity Index is a logarithmic scale like the Richter scale used to rate earthquakes, so a magnitude 7 eruption would eject ten times more material than the two largest eruptions of the past century--the magnitude 6 eruptions of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines (1991) and Novarupta in Alaska (1912).

Figure 1. An 18 km-high volcanic plume from one of a series of explosive eruptions of Mount Pinatubo beginning on 12 June 1991, viewed from Clark Air Base (about 20 km east of the volcano). Three days later, the most powerful eruption produced a plume that rose nearly 40 km, penetrating well into the stratosphere. Pinatubo's sulfur emissions cooled the Earth by about 1°F (0.5°C) for 1 - 2 years. (Photograph by David H. Harlow, USGS.)

Super-colossal eruptions
There has been only one other magnitude 7 "super-colossal" eruption in the past 1500 years--the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815. The sulfur pumped by this eruption into the stratosphere dimmed sunlight so extensively that global temperatures fell by about 2°F (1°C) for 1 - 2 years afterward. This triggered the famed Year Without a Summer in 1816. Killing frosts and snow storms in May and June 1816 in Eastern Canada and New England caused widespread crop failures, and lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania in July and August. The Tambora eruption was about 40% smaller than the 535 - 536 A.D. event, as measured by the number of sulfur aerosol particles deposited in Greenland ice cores.

In an article published in 2008 in the American Geophysical Union journal EOS, Dr. Ken Verosub of the University of California, Davis Department of Geology estimated that future eruptions capable of causing "Volcanic Winter" effects severe enough to depress global temperatures by 2°F (1°C) and trigger widespread crop failures for 1 - 2 years afterwards should occur about once every 200 - 300 years. Even a magnitude 6 eruption, such as the 1600 eruption of the Peruvian volcano Huaynaputina, can cause climatic change capable of killing millions of people. The Huaynaputina eruption is blamed for the Russian famine of 1601-1603, which killed over half a million people and led to the overthrow of Tsar Boris Godunov. Thankfully, the climatic impacts of all of these historic magnitude 6 and 7 eruptions have been relatively short-lived. After about two years, the sulfuric acid aerosol particles have settled out of the stratosphere, returning the climate to its former state.

Mega-colossal eruptions
Even more extreme eruptions have occurred in Earth's past--eruptions ten times more powerful than the Tambora eruption, earning a ranking of 8 out of 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). These "mega-colossal" eruptions occur only about once every 10,000 years, but have much longer-lasting climatic effects and thus are a more significant threat to human civilization. According to the Toba Catastrophe Theory, a mega-colossal eruption at Toba Caldera, Sumatra, about 74,000 years ago, was 3500 times greater than the Tambora eruption. According to model simulations, an eruption this large can pump so much sulfur dioxide gas into the stratosphere that the atmosphere does not have the capacity to oxidize all the SO2 to sulfuric acid aerosol. The atmosphere oxidizes as much SO2 as it can, leaving a huge reservoir of SO2 in the stratosphere. This SO2 gradually reacts to form sulfuric acid as the OH radicals needed for this reaction are gradually produced. The result is a much longer-lasting climate effect than the 1 - 2 years that the magnitude 6 and 7 events of 535, 1600, 1815, and 1991 lasted. A magnitude 8 eruption like the Toba event can cool the globe for 6 - 10 years (Figure 3), which may be long enough to trigger an ice age--if the climate is already on the verge of tipping into an ice age. Rampino and Self (1992) argued that the sulfur aerosol veil from Toba was thick and long-lasting enough to cool the globe by 3 - 5°C (5 - 9°F), pushing the climate--which was already cooling and perhaps headed towards an ice age--into a full-scale ice age. They suggested that the response of Canada to the volcano played a particularly important role, with their model predicting a 12°C (22°F) reduction in summer temperatures in Canada. This would have favored the growth of the Laurentide ice sheet, increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of the Earth, reflecting more sunlight and reducing temperatures further. The controversial Toba Catastrophe Theory asserts that the resulting sudden climate change reduced the Earth's population of humans to 1,000 - 10,000 breeding pairs. More recent research has shed considerable doubt on the idea that the Toba eruption pushed the climate into an ice age, though. Oppenheimer (2002) found evidence supporting only a 2°F (1.1°C) cooling of the globe, for the 1000 years after the Toba eruption. Zielinski et al. (1996) argued that the Toba eruption did not trigger a major ice age--the eruption merely pushed the globe into a cool period that lasted 200 years. Timmereck et al. (2010) used a model to show that the sulfate particles inthe stratosphere would have clumped together after the eruption, limiting the colling effect to four years, with a maximum global reduction in temperature of 3.5°C. Interestingly, a previous super-eruption of Toba, 788,000 years ago, coincided with a transition from an ice age to a warm period.

Figure 2. The 100x30 square kilometer Toba Caldera is situated in north-central Sumatra around 200 km north of the Equator. It is comprised of four overlapping calderas aligned with the Sumatran volcanic chain. Repeated volcanic cataclysms culminated in the stupendous expulsion of the Younger Toba Tuff around 74,000 years ago. The lake area is 100 square kilometers. Samosir Island formed as a result of subsequent uplift above the evacuated magma reservoir. Such resurgent domes are typically seen as the concluding phase of a large eruption. Landsat Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) browse images for path/row 128/58 (6 September 1999) and 129/58 (21 January 2001) from http://landsat7.usgs.gov/. Copyright USGS. Image source: Oppenheimer, C., 2002, "Limited global change due to the largest known Quaternary eruption, Toba 74 kyr BP?"Quaternary Science Reviews, 21, Issues 14-15, August 2002, Pages 1593-1609.

Figure 3. Total mass of sulfur dioxide and sulfate aerosol in the stratosphere (heavy solid and dotted lines, respectively) modeled for a 6 petagram stratospheric injection of SO2. Observed SO2 and aerosol mass for the 1991 Pinatubo eruption are shown for comparison. The much larger amount of SO2 in the Toba simulation soaks up all available oxidants in the stratosphere leading to a much longer lifetime of SO2 and, in turn, prolonging the manufacture of sulfate aerosol. Data from Read et al. (1993) and Bekki et al. (1996). Image source: Oppenheimer, C., 2002, "Limited global change due to the largest known Quaternary eruption, Toba 74 kyr BP?"Quaternary Science Reviews, 21, Issues 14-15, August 2002, Pages 1593-1609.

When can we expect the next mega-colossal eruption?
Given the observed frequency of one mega-colossal magnitude 8 volcanic eruption every 1.4 million years, the odds of another hitting in the next 100 years is about .014%, according to Mason et al., 2004. This works out to a 1% chance over the next 7200 years. Rampino (2002) puts the average frequency of such eruptions at once every 50,000 years--about double the frequency with which 1-km diameter comets or asteroids capable of causing a similar climatic effect hit the Earth. A likely location for the next mega-colossal eruption would be at the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming, which has had magnitude 7 or 8 eruptions as often as every 650,000 years. The last mega-colossal eruption there was about 640,000 years ago. But don't worry, the seismic activity under Yellowstone Lake earlier this year has died down, and the uplift of the ground over the Yellowstone caldera that was as large as 7 cm/yr (2.7 inches/yr) between 2004 - 2006 has now fallen to 4 cm/yr, according to the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. The USGS states that "the Yellowstone volcanic system shows no signs that it is headed toward such an eruption. The probability of a large caldera-forming eruption within the next few thousand years is exceedingly low".

What would happen if a magnitude 8 mega-colossal eruption were to occur today?
If a mega-colossal eruption were to occur today, it would probably not be able to push Earth into an ice age, according to a modeling study done by Jones et al. (2005). They found that an eruption like Toba would cool the Earth by about 17°F (9.4°C) after the first year (Figure 3), and the temperature would gradually recover to 3°F (1.8°C) below normal ten years after the eruption. They found that the eruption would reduce rainfall by 50% globally for the first two years, and up to 90% over the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and central Africa. This would obviously be very bad for human civilization, with the cold and lack of sunshine causing widespread crop failures and starvation of millions of people. Furthermore, the eruption would lead to a partial loss of Earth's protective ozone layer, allowing highly damaging levels of ultraviolet light to penetrate to the surface.

Not even a mega-colossal eruption of this magnitude would stop global warming, though. The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would not be affected by the volcanic eruption, and warming would resume where it left off once the stratospheric dust settled out in a decade. With civilization crippled by the disaster, greenhouse gas emissions would be substantially reduced, though (small solace!) If we really want to say goodbye to civilization, a repeat of the only magnitude 9 eruption in recorded history should do the trick--the magnitude 9.2 La Garita, Colorado blast of 27.8 million years ago (Mason et al., 2004).

Figure 4. Annual near-surface temperature anomalies for the year following a mega-colossal volcanic eruption like the Toba eruption of 74,000 years ago, if it were to occur today. Most land areas cool by 22°F (12°C) compared to average. Some areas, like Africa, cool by 29°F (16°C). Image credit: Jones, G.S., et al., 2005, "An AOGCM simulation of the climate response to a volcanic super-eruption", Climate Dynamics, 25, Numbers 7-8, pp 725-738, December, 2005.

What would happen if a magnitude 7 super-colossal eruption were to occur today?
An eruption today like the magnitude 7 events of 535 A.D. or 1815 would cause cause wide-spread crop failures for 1 - 2 years after the eruption. With food supplies in the world already stretched thin by rising population, decreased water availability, and conversion of cropland to grow biofuels, a major volcanic eruption would probably create widespread famine, threatening the lives of millions of people. Wars over scarce resources might result. However, society's vulnerability to major volcanic eruptions is less than it was, since the globe has warmed significantly in the past 200 years. The famines from the eruptions of 1600 and 1815 both occurred during the Little Ice Age, when global temperatures were about 1.4°F (0.8°C) cooler than today. Crop failures would not be as wide-spread with today's global temperatures, if a suer-colossal eruption were to occur. Fifty years from now, when global temperatures are expected to be at least 1°C warmer, a magnitude 7 eruption should only be able to cool the climate down to current levels.

Volcanoes also warm the climate
While volcanoes cool the climate on time scales of 1 - 2 years, they act to warm the climate over longer time scales, since they are an important source of natural CO2 to the atmosphere. Reviews of the scientific literature done by Kerrick (2001) and other authors estimate that volcanoes emit between 0.132 and 0.319 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, which is about 100 to 300 times less than the 36.3 Gt emitted by humans into the atmosphere in 2008 (Le Quere et al., 2009). According to the USGS, with 50 - 60 volcanoes active on the Earth at any one time, it would take about 11,700 extra volcanoes like Hawaii's Kilauea to scale up volcanic emissions of CO2 to match what humans do. Despite the relatively meager amount of CO2 they put in the air, volcanoes are largely responsible for the natural CO2 in the atmosphere, and helped make life possible on Earth. Why, then, haven't CO2 levels continuously risen over geologic time, turning Earth into a steamy hothouse? In fact, CO2 levels have fallen considerably since the time of the dinosaurs--how can this be? Well, volcano-emitted CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by chemical weathering. This occurs when rain and snow fall on rocks containing silicates. The moisture and silicates react with CO2, pulling it out of the air. The carbon removed from the air is then washed into the sea, where it ends up in ocean sediments that gradually harden into rock. Rates of chemical weathering on Earth have accelerated since the time of the dinosaurs, largely due to the recent uplift of the Himalaya Mountains and Tibetan Plateau. These highlands undergo a tremendous amount of weathering, thanks to their lofty heights and the rains of the Asian Monsoon that they capture. Unfortunately, chemical weathering cannot help us with our current high levels of greenhouse gases, since chemical weathering takes thousands of years to remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. It takes about 100,000 years for silicate weathering to remove 63% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Thus, climate models predict that chemical weathering will solve our greenhouse gas problem in about 100,000 - 200,000 years.

Tropical volcanoes have the biggest climate impact
Let's examine recent volcanic eruptions that have had a significant cooling effect on the climate. In the past 200 years, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines (June 1991), El Chichon (Mexico, 1982), Mt. Agung (Indonesia, 1963), Santa Maria (Guatemala, 1902) Krakatoa (Indonesia, 1883), and Tambora (1815) all created noticeable cooling. As one can see from a plot of the solar radiation reaching Mauna Loa in Hawaii (Figure 5), the Mt. Pinatubo and El Chichon eruptions caused a greater than 10% drop in sunlight reaching the surface. The eruption of Tambora in 1815 had an even greater impact, triggering the famed Year Without a Summer in 1816.

Figure 5. Reduced solar radiation due to volcanic aerosols as measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. Image credit: NOAA/ESRL.

You'll notice from the list of eruptions above that all of these climate-cooling events were from volcanoes in the tropics. Above the tropics, the stratosphere's circulation features rising air, which pulls the sulfur-containing volcanic aerosols high into the stratosphere. Upper-level winds in the stratosphere tend to flow from the Equator to the poles, so sulfur aerosols from equatorial eruptions get spread out over both hemispheres. These aerosol particles take a year or two to settle back down to earth, since there is no rain in the stratosphere to help remove them. However, if a major volcanic eruption occurs in the mid-latitudes or polar regions, the circulation of the stratosphere in those regions generally features pole-ward-flowing, sinking air, and the volcanic aerosol particles are not able to penetrate high in the stratosphere or get spread out around the entire globe. The 2009 eruption of Alaska's Mt. Redoubt, located near 59° north latitude, was too far north to be able to inject significant amounts of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere. Furthermore, the previous 1989 - 1990 eruption of Redoubt (Figure 6) put only about 1/100 of the amount of sulfur into the air that the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo did, according to the TOMS Volcanic Emissions Group. We can expect the 2009 eruption of Redoubt to be similar in sulfur emissions to the 1989 - 1990 eruption, and have an insignificant impact on global climate.

Figure 6. Amount of sulfur gases put into the air by recent volcanic eruptions. Note that the 1989 eruption of Redoubt put only 1/100 the amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the air that the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo did. Image credit: TOMS Volcanic Emissions Group.

Two non-tropical volcanoes that affected the climate
Realclimate.org has a nice article that goes into the volcano-climate connection in greater detail. One interesting quote from the article: There can be some exceptions to the tropics-only rule, and at least one high latitude volcano appears to have had significant climate effects; Laki (Iceland, 1783-1784). The crucial factor was that the eruption was almost continuous for over 8 months which lead to significantly elevated sulphate concentrations for that whole time over much of the Atlantic and European regions, even though stratospheric concentrations were likely not particularly exceptional.

scienceblog.com has an interesting article about the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century--the 1912 eruption of Alaska's Mt. Novarupta, located in the same chain of volcanoes as Mt. Redoubt. According to a NASA computer model, Novarupta's climate-cooling aerosols stayed north of 30°N latitude, and did not cause global cooling. However, the model indicates that the eruption may have indirectly weakened India's summer monsoon, producing an abnormally warm and dry summer over northern India.

For further information
PBS TV special on the 535-536 A.D. disaster.
Newspaper articles on the 535-536 A.D. disaster.
Volcanic winter article from wikipedia.
Realclimate.org has a nice article that goes into the volcano-climate connection in greater detail.

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Bekki, S., J.A. Pyle, W. Zhong, R. Toumi, J.D. Haigh and D.M. Pyle, 1996, "The role of microphysical and chemical processes in prolonging the climate forcing of the Toba eruption", Geophysical Research Letters 23 (1996), pp. 2669-2672.

Jones, G.S., et al., 2005, "An AOGCM simulation of the climate response to a volcanic super-eruption", Climate Dynamics, 25, Numbers 7-8, pp 725-738, December, 2005.

Kerrick, D.M., 2001, "Present and past nonanthropogenic CO2 degassing from the solid Earth," Reviews of Geophysics, v. 39, n. 4, p. 565-585.

Rampino, M.R., and S. Self, 1993, "Climate-volcanism feedback and the Toba eruption of 74,000 years ago", Quaternary Research 40 (1993), pp. 269-280.

Mason, B.G., D.M. Pyle, and C. Oppenheimer, 2004, "The size and frequency of the largest observed explosive eruptions on Earth", Bulletin of Volcanology" 66, Number 8, December 2004, pp 735-748.

Oppenheimer, C., 2002, "Limited global change due to the largest known Quaternary eruption, Toba 74 kyr BP?"Quaternary Science Reviews, 21, Issues 14-15, August 2002, Pages 1593-1609.

Rampino, M.R., 2002, "Supereruptions as a Threat to Civilizations on Earth-like Planets", Icarus, 156, Issue 2, April 2002, Pages 562-569.

Read, W.G., L. Froidevaux and J.W. Waters, 1993, "Microwave Limb Sounder measurements of stratospheric SO2 from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption", Geophysical Research Letters 20 (1993), pp. 1299-1302.

Timmreck et al., 2010, "Aerosol size confines climate response to volcanic super-eruptions", Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 37, L24705, 5 pp., doi:10.1029/2010GL045464

Verosub, K.L., and J. Lippman, 2008, "Global Impacts of the 1600 Eruption of Peru's Huaynaputina Volcano", EOS 89, 15, 8 April 2008, pp 141-142.

Zielinski, G.A. et al., 1996, "Potential Atmospheric Impact of the Toba Mega-Eruption 71,000 Years Ago", Geophysical Research Letters, 23, 8, pp. 837-840, 1996.

Earthmagazine.org article from 2009, "Volcanic versus anthropogenic carbon dioxide: The missing science."