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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 04/19/2010

Iceland volcano unlikely to cause global cooling

By Andrew Freedman

* Steady warming: Full Forecast | NatCast | Volcano pics *

The eruption of Mt. Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland has had a chilling effect on air travel, but unless the eruption starts lofting far greater amounts of volcanic material higher into the atmosphere than it has to date, or continues unabated for months, the volcano with the tongue-twisting name probably will not join the ranks of famous climate-altering volcanoes, such as Mt. Tambora in Indonesia and Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines.

NASA MODIS satellite image showing the volcanic ash plume flowing southward from southern Iceland on April 17.

Pinatubo, which blew its top in 1991, is famous for causing average global surface temperatures to drop by about one degree Fahrenheit in the one to two years following the eruption.

The Icelandic volcano, whose name, I suspect, can be traced to someone having an epileptic seizure while typing, has been spewing ash several miles high since last week, raising fears of another short-term, volcanically induced cool down. Although the ash plume has been sufficient to grind air travel to a screeching halt, most of the volcanic material has remained in the troposphere, where chemical processes and precipitation can disperse it in a matter of days, rather than entering the stratosphere where it would have a more enduring influence on the climate.

Volcanic ash grounds flights to Europe from Dulles International Airport on Saturday, April 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

For example, an advisory from the UK Met Office yesterday told aviators that there was "no significant ash risk above flight level 350" (35,000 feet for those of you who don't speak pilot). Not only has the bulk of volcanic material stayed in the lower atmosphere, but the volcano has contributed a tiny fraction of the material that previous climate-disrupting volcanoes have released.

Volcanoes affect the climate by emitting both carbon dioxide, which causes warming, as well as particles known as aerosols, particularly sulfate aerosols, which cause cooling. Once they reach the upper atmosphere, these aerosols are very effective at reflecting incoming solar radiation, preventing it from reaching Earth's surface and thereby cooling the climate. This cooling can last as long as a few years, and is one of the many natural sources of climate variability.

The amount of carbon dioxide that volcanoes emit is extremely small compared to recent emissions from human activities. This graphic shows that daily emissions of carbon dioxide from European air travel dwarf the estimated emissions of the same gas from the volcano each day.

I asked Alan Robock, an environmental sciences professor at Rutgers University, to put this eruption into a historical context. He provided some startling statistics:

The April 14 eruption put out 0.003-0.004 megatons of sulfur dioxide into the troposphere, whereas the 1991 Pinatubo eruption added 20 megatons of sulfur dioxide to the stratosphere, he said.

"So this one was 10,000 times smaller, and put the sulfur dioxide into a region where its lifetime is only a week or so, as compared to one-two years in the stratosphere, so that's another factor of 100 smaller in terms of lifetime," Robock said via email.

Another factor that argues against this eruption having much influence on the global climate is its location. Iceland is almost perfectly situated to maximize the disruption of air traffic, while minimizing the impact on the climate system. The country sits upwind of Europe, and prevailing winds have carried the fine particles of ash, which are extremely hazardous to aircraft engines (see the case of British Airways flight 9 in 1982), above European hubs like London, Paris and Frankfurt. However, because of the way air circulates within the stratosphere, it can be especially difficult for a volcano located so far north to significantly alter the global climate.

According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., air primarily enters the stratosphere over the tropics, and the circulation carries it from there toward the poles, where it descends back to the troposphere. Because of this pattern, known as the Brewer-Dobson circulation, an eruption in the tropics can rapidly spread volcanic material worldwide, whereas emissions from a high-latitude volcano would have a more narrow influence on the climate in the northern hemisphere.

The volcano will not have a noticeable effect on North American weather in the near-term, although some ash has drifted to northeastern Canada, where flight restrictions are possible today, according to CNN. As the ash circulates around the Northern Hemisphere there may be more vibrant sunsets than normal, according to Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters, who wrote last week:

It does not appear that the current eruption... was large enough to alter the atmospheric circulation of the Northern Hemisphere and cause a change in the late spring/early summer weather patterns. A series of several major eruptions over the next few weeks would be required for that to happen. The volcano is also too far north for the cooling effect of its ash cloud to affect the sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic for the coming hurricane season. However, the ash could should bring spectacular sunsets to Europe over the next week, and to North America by sometime next week, as the jet stream wraps the ash cloud eastwards across the Northern Hemisphere.

History does argue in favor of caution, though, considering that Icelandic volcanoes, including Eyjafjallajokull's neighbor, Mt. Laki, have been blamed for triggering significant cooling spells in the past.

According to the blog, a long-duration eruption of Mt. Laki in 1783-84 had "significant climate effects."

"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," NASA scientist and blogger Gavin Schmidt wrote in 2006.

Only time will tell how long this eruption will last, and whether it may prevent this year from becoming the warmest year on record, as some NASA scientists have projected.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | April 19, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Nature, News & Notes, Science  
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The Icelandic volcano, whose name, I suspect, can be traced to someone having an epileptic seizure while typing,


What an incredibly tasteless and juvenile comment.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | April 19, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

i imagine you'll get complaints from humorless epileptic typists, but...

"The Icelandic volcano, whose name, I suspect, can be traced to someone having an epileptic seizure while typing..."

is pretty funny.

thanks for the info andrew.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 19, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

well...i didn't see WashingtonDame's comment before typing mine... i guess i'm juvenile... oh well... nothing new there....

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 19, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Great write-up Andrew. Took me a second to realize you meant "dwarf" as a verb; however the CO2 graphic you found is amazing! Have a good next few days.

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | April 19, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Very interesting, Andrew! Thanks for the informative write up.

Posted by: Snowlover2 | April 19, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

There's really no need to introduce convulsive disorders [epilepsy] into the discussion.

The name "Eyafjallajokull" is Icelandic or roughly equivalent to Old Norse [Norwegian: gammelnorsk] I believe "eyja" means "island", or perhaps "egg". "Fjalla" means "mountain" and "jokull" evidently means "glacier"...thus
"Island-mountain glacier"...remember the volcano is underneath a glacier prior to eruption. Modern Norwegian for "glacier" is "isbre". However natives of Iceland retain much of the original language of the Vikings, while the Norwegians, Swedes and Danes modernized the same language as they interacted with the rest of Europe. [In the same manner Louisiana Cajun French is much closer to the French of Louis XIV than to modern French. The modern French citizen says the formal "parlez-vous francais?" while the Cajun is apt to say the familiar "tu parles Cajun?" or something of that order].

Among the Romance languages, it is said that Romanian is much closer to the original Latin than are French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Romanians preserve many of the case endings of the original Latin, except for the ablative case which disappears. This is probably due to the proximity of Romanians to the Slavs whose languages are highly inflected like Latin. Slavs also drop the ablative case which is split into the instrumental ["with"] and locative ["at" or "in"]cases.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | April 19, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 19, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

it's like one of those great german words made by combining many words.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 19, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Interesting article. I agree that your comment about the seizure was a bit out of line and you should apologize to anyone who might be offended.

Posted by: stinkerflat1 | April 19, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

"The Icelandic volcano, whose name, I suspect, can be traced to someone having an epileptic seizure while typing..."

A funny comment, no doubt. I think the main problem, though, Andrew is not that you made it (though it does seem a tad juvenile for a Washington Post article), but about what country and language you made it. If this were a difficult-to-pronounce name from an African, Asian or Central American mountain would you have made this comment? Or was it ok to take a sideswipe at the language of these Icelanders because they're just white people? Would you feel this way about any word in any language that seemed funny to you as an English speaker, or is this like how it's ok for us to have WWII video games where we shoot and blow up Germans, but it's not ok for us to be blowing up Japanese?

Posted by: appointedtolife | April 19, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman wrote, "Volcanoes affect the climate by emitting both carbon dioxide, which causes warming, ..."

Translation provided by Google -
--begin quote--
University of Turku, Department of Physics, the study shows that carbon dioxide is a significantly smaller impact on global warming than previously thought. Research led by Professor Jyrki Kauppinen according to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide to explain only 5-10 percent of observed global warming .- The climate is warming yes, but not because of greenhouse gases, "says Kauppinen.

According to him, the UN climate panel, namely the IPCC projections so far have a single class-size error.

- International Panel on Climate Change calculated value is more than ten times larger than our calculated result, Kauppinen says.

He intends to publish research results in Nature magazine June issue.
--end quote--

Translation by Google.

Hat tip to Climate Realists

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 19, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

mr. q,
interesting article. being juvenile, i can't help but comment on some of the funny sentences which are a result of the translation:

"Professor Jyrki Kauppinen front is built in the 1970s..."

anyway, i see that article has been making the skeptic website rounds. i don't know what to make of it. is his the only study that shows 5-10% of the sensitivity that "alarmist's" think?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 19, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Good background on the volcano and it's eruptive history at

Posted by: GabbroGuy | April 19, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Hi all. I apologize if I offended or hurt anyone with my remark about the Icelandic volcano's name. What is funny to some may be offensive or even hurtful to others, and I did not mean any offense by it.

And no, 'appointedtolife', my remark has absolutely nothing to do with race at all. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Thanks, Bombo, for the details about the Old Norse language.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | April 19, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

My daughter has decided she would be the one to coin the new term for the volcanic ash. She calls it 'The Plume of Doom'. Any reference from now on, will be sued for copyright infringement. Actually, just kidding. She's only 12.

Posted by: joe3945 | April 19, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

The stratosphere is particularly low over rapidly developing extratropical storms. Had there been a major storm, especially a wintertime polar low, near the volcano, significant injection of sulphates into the stratosphere might have occurred.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | April 19, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

The important question is, will we get any really pretty sunsets out of it?

Posted by: kevinwparker | April 19, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

Until the Eyjafjallajokull eruption is completely over and done with, we can't say for certain that it won't have any impact on global cooling. As noted in the original post, above, it really depends how long stuff keeps pouring out of the volcano. If it's a couple of weeks, the northern latitudes may get a cooling buzz. But if its much longer, oy, vey, who knows what may happen re: global climate.

This eruption may ultimately turn out to a tweak of nature. But right now, even this tweak has created a lot of hardship during the last few days. My friends stuck in Paris are managing. It's people who grow flowers in Kenya that can't be delivered to market, people needing surgical transplants, etc. that are really hurting.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | April 19, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

You politically correct people need to get over it.

Posted by: MKadyman | April 19, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Heh, I rather liked the comment about the name of the volcano.

Thanks for writing up this post, Andrew. I was wondering if the volcano would have any significant effects globally, but haven't really seen much information about it. And the information I did read wasn't particularly helpful.

It'll be interesting to see how long this continues. If this goes on for several months as some suggest, then its effect on the climate will be of mere academic interest. Europe's economy was beginning to recover before this, and the disruption to air travel could prove costly. Then there's the issue of how to transport the tens (hundreds?) of thousands stranded travelers.

Posted by: nlcaldwell | April 20, 2010 4:10 AM | Report abuse

Since Arctic Sea Ice extent is just a breath away from the 1979-2000 average, is it possible that the volcanic ash will cool (ever so slightly) the water/current that feeds the Arctic, and thereby drive the Arctic Sea Ice extent above the 1979-2000 average? :)

Wouldn't that be a hoot!

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 20, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Walter, I see you got a response from Gavin this morning. It's hilarious how gullible some self-proclaimed skeptics are. The calculation of the effect of doubling atmospheric CO2 on raising the global temperature has been done and published hundreds of times for over a hundred years. Virtually all the recent calculations have between 2 and 4.5 degrees C warming with the consensus being about 3 degrees C warming. But now some people are falling for not a new calculation but a rumor of a new calculation. Wishful thinking makes the brain do funny things.

Posted by: imback | April 21, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

imback wrote, "The calculation of the effect of doubling atmospheric CO2 on raising the global temperature has been done and published hundreds of times for over a hundred years. Virtually all the recent calculations have between 2 and 4.5 degrees C warming with the consensus being about 3 degrees C warming."

The effect of CO2 on atmospheric forcing is logarithmic. See this article for a good primer.

Is the 3 degrees C warming "consensus" as you say, based solely upon the warming effect of CO2, or does it include other forcings? i.e. positive feedback such as water vapor

imback also wrote, "But now some people are falling for not a new calculation but a rumor of a new calculation. Wishful thinking makes the brain do funny things."

Would that also apply to ignoring decades of established science regarding the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, and pretending as if they were a figment of the imagination or purely localized?

Computer models can be wrong, just like humans. It is important to remember that humans made the models.

--begin quote--
Flawed computer models may have exaggerated the effects of an Icelandic volcano eruption that has grounded tens of thousands of flights, stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers and cost businesses hundreds of millions of euros.

The computer models that guided decisions to impose a no-fly zone across most of Europe in recent days are based on incomplete science and limited data, according to European officials. As a result, they may have over-stated the risks to the public, needlessly grounding flights and damaging businesses.

“It is a black box in certain areas,” Matthias Ruete, the EU’s director-general for mobility and transport, said on Monday, noting that many of the assumptions in the computer models were not backed by scientific evidence.
--end quote--

Source of the above quote.

This is my favorite sentence - "The computer models that guided decisions to impose a no-fly zone across most of Europe in recent days are based on incomplete science and limited data, according to European officials."

Based on incomplete science and limited data. I applaud their honesty. If only all scientists/people could be equally as honest.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 21, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

yeah...pretty funny/sad.... did you see the response #610?
( )

the poster found another finnish article about Kauppinen and translated a part indicating Kauppinen said he HASN'T EVEN WRITTEN the paper, much less submitted it to ANYONE for publication! no need to keep our eyes peeled for that june nature issue, i guess... do you think this other article will make the rounds of the "skeptic" websites too?

nonetheless.... mission accomplished for the "skeptics". doubt has been sown. people will remember the "5-10%" part. by june well be debunking the next doubt-sowing false study not actually published in "nature"....

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 21, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

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