UKRI-Norway: Figuring Out how to Reconstruct Common Era forcing of climate by VOLcanoes with novel data and modelling approaches (FORCE-VOL)

Lead Research Organisation: British Antarctic Survey
Department Name: Science Programmes


Large volcanic eruptions can have a major impact on climate, due to the emission of sulfur gases, which form small droplets (aerosols) that reflect incoming sunlight and cool the Earth's surface. When these aerosols form in the upper levels of the atmosphere (the stratosphere, 15-50 km altitude) they remain there for several years, resulting in pronounced global cooling. Indeed, this phenomenon has inspired controversial proposals to cool the planet to combat global warming through artificial stratospheric sulfur injections. However, despite its scientific and societal significance, understanding of volcanic impacts on climate is highly uncertain, due to the limited observational record of large explosive volcanism: only two eruptions, Pinatubo in 1991 and El Chichón in 1982, have impacted global climate within the satellite era. These eruptions are at least an order of magnitude smaller than the largest eruptions in the historical record, and so are not representative of the scope of how volcanoes can impact our climate. This makes it challenging to understand, and prepare for, the climatic and societal impact of large eruptions in the future. The limited observational record of volcanic sulfur emissions also creates a major issue for climate models, which need to know how much sulfur to add to their computerised stratospheres in order to mimic historical climate change events.

To address these challenges, we are proposing a new way to reconstruct the amount of stratospheric sulfate from large eruptions over the last 2000 years, based on the record of volcanic sulfate found in polar ice cores. Although this approach is widely used, at present there are major uncertainties in how to convert the amount of sulfate found in ice cores into the original amount of sulfate that was in the stratosphere.

This project will substantially improve this conversion - known as the "transfer function" - by using new ice cores, new measurement techniques, and new modelling approaches. First, we will make detailed comparisons of the amount of sulfate in the ice to measurements of the amount of sulfur that went into the stratosphere for eruptions during the last 150 years, a time period in which direct observations of the atmosphere (either by satellites or instruments that measure sunlight) exist. Compared to the last time this calibration was done, the number of available ice cores has grown from 11 to 90, allowing for much better spatial coverage and more representative data. We also have a new technique that measures sulfur isotopes to allow us to distinguish the climatically-important stratospheric sulfate from other sources of sulfate to the ice sheets, further improving the accuracy of the calibration. A new computer modelling approach will also be used to make sure that the transfer function is applicable to a broad range of different eruption characteristics (such as the size, season, and latitude of the eruption), and to help us characterise the transfer function's uncertainty.

The insights from the ice core calibration and the modelling will be combined to generate a new record of stratospheric sulfate from volcanic eruptions over the last 2000 years. This record will be used widely in climate model simulations, including those used to inform the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Indeed this work may lead to improvements in climate modelling, as if the amount of sulfate to be added to the models for historical eruptions is better known, we should be able to make better assessments of which models most accurately match the associated changes in climate. Looking forward, our work will also be valuable for policy makers and insurance companies interested in natural hazards, as it will allow them to better understand the frequency and potential impacts of the major eruptions that will occur in our future.


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