Tropical volcanoes can lead to El Niño events

(Credit: Getty Images)

Volcanic eruptions that occur in the tropics can cause El Niño events, warming periods in the Pacific Ocean with dramatic global impacts on the climate, according to new research.

Enormous eruptions trigger El Niño events by pumping millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which form a sulfuric acid cloud, reflecting solar radiation and reducing the average global surface temperature, according to the study.

The study used sophisticated climate model simulations to show that El Niño tends to peak during the year after large volcanic eruptions like the one at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption
Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupting on June 12, 1991. A much larger eruption occurred three days later. (Credit: US Geological Survey via Rutgers)

“We can’t predict volcanic eruptions, but when the next one happens, we’ll be able to do a much better job predicting the next several seasons, and before Pinatubo we really had no idea,” says Alan Robock, coauthor of the study and a professor in the environmental sciences department at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

“All we need is one number—how much sulfur dioxide goes into the stratosphere—and you can measure it with satellites the day after an eruption.”

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is nature’s leading mode of periodic climate variability. It features sea surface temperature anomalies in the central and eastern Pacific. ENSO events (consisting of El Niño or La Niña, a cooling period) unfold every three to seven years and usually peak at the end of the calendar year, causing worldwide impacts on the climate by altering atmospheric circulation, the study notes.

Damage from volcanic ash at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines after the June 15, 1991, eruption of Mount Pinatubo. (Credit: Richard Hoblitt/US Geological Survey via Rutgers)

Strong El Niño events and wind shear typically suppress the development of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. But they can also lead to elevated sea levels and potentially damaging cold season nor’easters along the East Coast, among many other impacts.

Sea surface temperature data since 1882 document large El Niño-like patterns following four out of five big eruptions: Santa María (Guatemala) in October, 1902; Mount Agung (Indonesia) in March, 1963; El Chichón (Mexico) in April, 1982; and Pinatubo in June, 1991.

The study focuses on the Mount Pinatubo eruption because it’s the largest and best-documented tropical one in the modern technology period. It ejected about 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide, Robock says.

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Cooling in tropical Africa after volcanic eruptions weakens the West African monsoon, and drives westerly wind anomalies near the equator over the western Pacific, the study says. The anomalies are amplified by air-sea interactions in the Pacific, favoring an El Niño-like response.

Climate model simulations show that Pinatubo-like eruptions tend to shorten La Niñas, lengthen El Niños and lead to unusual warming during neutral periods, the study says.

If there’s a big volcanic eruption tomorrow, Robock says he could make predictions for seasonal temperatures, precipitation, and the appearance of El Niño next winter.

“If you’re a farmer and you’re in a part of the world where El Niño or the lack of one determines how much rainfall you will get, you could make plans ahead of time for what crops to grow, based on the prediction for precipitation,” he says.

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The journal Nature Communications has published the research online.

Source: Rutgers University