Gifford Miller collects vegetation samples on Baffin Island. (Credit: Photo courtesy of Gifford Miller, University of Colorado)
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.”
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