Volcanic ash may have a bigger impact on the climate than we thought

September 10, 2020

When volcanos erupt, these geologic monsters produce tremendous clouds of ash and dust--plumes that can blacken the sky, shut down air traffic and reach heights of roughly 25 miles above Earth's surface.

A new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that such volcanic ash may also have a larger influence on the planet's climate than scientists previously suspected.

The new research, published in the journal Nature Communications, examines the eruption of Mount Kelut (or Kelud) on the Indonesian island of Java in 2014. Drawing on real-world observations of this event and advanced computer simulations, the team discovered that volcanic ash seems to be prone to loitering--remaining in the air for months or even longer after a major eruption.

"What we found for this eruption is that the volcanic ash can persist for a long time," said Yunqian Zhu, lead author of the new study and a research scientist at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder.

Lingering ash

The discovery began with a chance observation: Members of the research team had been flying an unmanned aircraft near the site of the Mount Kelut eruption--an event that covered large portions of Java in ash and drove people from their homes. In the process, the aircraft spotted something that shouldn't have been there.

"They saw some large particles floating around in the atmosphere a month after the eruption," Zhu said. "It looked like ash."

She explained that scientists have long known that volcanic eruptions can take a toll on the planet's climate. These events blast huge amounts of sulfur-rich particles high into Earth's atmosphere where they can block sunlight from reaching the ground.

Researchers haven't thought, however, that ash could play much of a role in that cooling effect. These chunks of rocky debris, scientists reasoned, are so heavy that most of them likely fall out of volcanic clouds not long after an eruption.

Zhu's team wanted to find out why that wasn't the case with Kelut. Drawing on aircraft and satellite observations of the unfolding disaster, the group discovered that the volcano's plume seemed to be rife with small and lightweight particles of ash--tiny particles that were likely capable of floating in the air for long periods of time, much like dandelion fluff.

"Researchers have assumed that ash is similar to volcanic glass," Zhu said. "But what we've found is that these floating ones have a density that's more like pumice."

Disappearing molecules

Study coauthor Brian Toon added that these pumice-like particles also seem to shift the chemistry of the entire volcanic plume.

Toon, a professor in LASP and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at CU Boulder, explained that erupting volcanos spew out a large amount of sulfur dioxide. Many researchers previously assumed that those molecules interact with others in the air and convert into sulfuric acid--a series of chemical reactions that, theoretically, could take weeks to complete. Observations of real-life eruptions, however, suggest that it happens a lot faster than that.

"There has been a puzzle of why these reactions occur so fast," Toon said.

He and his colleagues think they've discovered the answer: Those molecules of sulfur dioxide seem to stick to the particles of ash floating in the air. In the process, they may undergo chemical reactions on the surface of the ash itself--potentially pulling around 43% more sulfur dioxide out of the air.

Ash, in other words, may hasten the transformation of volcanic gases in the atmosphere.

Just what the impact of those clouds of ash are on the climate isn't clear. Long-lasting particles in the atmosphere could, potentially, darken and even help to cool the planet after an eruption. Floating ash might also blow all the way from sites like Kelut to the planet's poles. There, it could kickstart chemical reactions that would damage Earth's all-important ozone layer.

But the researchers say that one thing is clear: When a volcano blows, it may be time to pay a lot more attention to all that ash and its true impact on Earth's climate.

"I think we've discovered something important here," Toon said. "It's subtle, but it could make a big difference."

University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Atmosphere Articles from Brightsurf:

ALMA shows volcanic impact on Io's atmosphere
New radio images from ALMA show for the first time the direct effect of volcanic activity on the atmosphere of Jupiter's moon Io.

New study detects ringing of the global atmosphere
A ringing bell vibrates simultaneously at a low-pitched fundamental tone and at many higher-pitched overtones, producing a pleasant musical sound. A recent study, just published in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences by scientists at Kyoto University and the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, shows that the Earth's entire atmosphere vibrates in an analogous manner, in a striking confirmation of theories developed by physicists over the last two centuries.

Estuaries are warming at twice the rate of oceans and atmosphere
A 12-year study of 166 estuaries in south-east Australia shows that the waters of lakes, creeks, rivers and lagoons increased 2.16 degrees in temperature and increased acidity.

What makes Saturn's atmosphere so hot
New analysis of data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft found that electric currents, triggered by interactions between solar winds and charged particles from Saturn's moons, spark the auroras and heat the planet's upper atmosphere.

Galactic cosmic rays affect Titan's atmosphere
Planetary scientists using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) revealed the secrets of the atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

Physics: An ultrafast glimpse of the photochemistry of the atmosphere
Researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have explored the initial consequences of the interaction of light with molecules on the surface of nanoscopic aerosols.

Using lasers to visualize molecular mysteries in our atmosphere
Molecular interactions between gases and liquids underpin much of our lives, but difficulties in measuring gas-liquid collisions have so far prevented the fundamental exploration of these processes.

The atmosphere of a new ultra hot Jupiter is analyzed
The combination of observations made with the CARMENES spectrograph on the 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (Almería), and the HARPS-N spectrograph on the National Galileo Telescope (TNG) at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (Garafía, La Palma) has enabled a team from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and from the University of La Laguna (ULL) to reveal new details about this extrasolar planet, which has a surface temperature of around 2000 K.

An exoplanet loses its atmosphere in the form of a tail
A new study, led by scientists from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), reveals that the giant exoplanet WASP-69b carries a comet-like tail made up of helium particles escaping from its gravitational field propelled by the ultraviolet radiation of its star.

Iron and titanium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet
Exoplanets can orbit close to their host star. When the host star is much hotter than our sun, then the exoplanet becomes as hot as a star.

Read More: Atmosphere News and Atmosphere Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.