Scientists have long known that large volcanic explosions can affect the weather by spewing particles that block solar energy and cool the air. Some suspect that extended “volcanic winters” from gigantic eruptions helped kill off dinosaurs and Neanderthals.
In the summer following Indonesia’s 1815 Tambora eruption, frost wrecked crops as far away as New England, and the 1991 blowout of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo lowered average global temperatures by 0.7 degrees F–enough to mask the effects of greenhouse gases for a year or so.
Now, in research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, scientists have discovered that eruptions also affect rainfall over the Asian monsoon region, where seasonal storms water crops for nearly half of Earth’s population.
Tree-ring researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) showed that big eruptions tend to dry up much of Central Asia, but bring more rain to southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar–the opposite of what many climate models predict.
A paper reporting their results appears in an advance online version of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The growth rings of some tree species can be correlated with rainfall. LDEO’s Tree Ring Lab used tree rings from some 300 sites across Asia to measure the effects of 54 volcanic eruptions going back about 800 years.