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Climate Change May Increase Volcanic Eruptions

Rapid rise in sea levels could cause a dramatic increase in volcanic eruptions, according to a new study
Related: Earth
January 3, 2013

Lava flows down the Tungurahua volcano, as seen from Cotalo, Ecuador, in the early hours of Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

The rapid rise in sea levels could cause a dramatic increase in volcanic eruptions, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal Geology, found that during periods of rapid climate change over the last million years, the rapid melting of continental glaciers and the resulting sea-level rise eventually increased volcanic eruptions as much as fold.

"Everybody knows that volcanoes have an impact on climate," said study co-author Marion Jegen, a geophysicist at Geomar in Germany. "What we found was just the opposite."

The findings were based only on natural changes in climate, so it's not clear whether human-caused climate change would have the same impact, Jegen said. And if it did, she added, the effect wouldn't be seen for centuries.

Volcanic changes

It's long been known that volcanism can dramatically alter the climate, often in cataclysmic ways. For instance, mass extinctions such as the one at the end of the Permian period may have been caused by continuous volcanic eruptions that cooled the climate and poisoned the atmosphere and the seas. [50 Amazing Volcano Facts]

But few people thought climate change could fuel volcanic eruptions before Jegen and her colleagues began looking at cores drilled from the oceans off of South and Central America. The sediments showed the last 1 million years of Earth's climatic history.

Every so often, shifts in Earth's orbit lead to rapid warming of the planet, massive melting of glaciers and a quick rise in sea levels. The team found that much more tephra, or layers of volcanic ash, appeared in the sediment cores after those periods. Some places, such as Costa Rica, saw five to 10 times as much volcanic activity during periods of glacial melting as at other times, Jegen told LiveScience.

To understand why that would be, the research team used a computer model and captured how those changes affected the pressures experienced at different places on the Earth's crust. The team found that when glaciers melt, they reduce the pressure on continents, while sea-level rise increases pressures on the ocean floor crust. In the computer model, the change in pressures on the Earth's crust seem to cause increases in volcanism.

In general, the speed of the transition from ice age to melting, rather than the total amount of melting, predicted how intensely the volcanic eruptions increased, she said.

The study doesn't address whether modern-day climate change would have any impact on the frequency of volcanic eruptions, though in theory it's possible, Jegen said.

But even if anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change impacts volcanic eruptions, people wouldn't see the effect in this lifetime, because the volcanic activity doesn't occur immediately after the climate change, Jegen said.

"We predict there's a time lag of about 2,500 years," Jegen said. "So even if we change the climate, you wouldn't really expect anything to happen in the next few thousand years."

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

50 Interesting Facts About The Earth
The Reality of Climate Change: 10 Myths Busted
Countdown: History's Most Destructive Volcanoes

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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amyrosenberg

We in the USA are only a small part of the World's population. We can only do so much. to avert global warming. I get more than a little tired of all of these people telling me to protect predator animals and recycle everything. We now have wolves, coyotes, bears, and predator birds watching our children and small dogs , trying to catch them for an easy dinner. And now they want to take away our guns. We need to protect ourselves against both animal and human predators. Enough already!!

January 06 2013 at 2:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rann948

Climate change is also responsible for insanity; clearly demonstrated by the madness of those seeking to prove that EVERYTHING is caused by climate change.

January 05 2013 at 10:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Steve

Volcanic eruptions might be a good thing. They put ash in the atmosphere which blocks some of the sun's rays. Result is a cooling earth. Best way to counter global warming I can think of.

January 05 2013 at 7:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Steve's comment
who_cares68

global warming is a MYTH, Al Gore has been proven to be a FRAUD, do you live on Mars?

January 05 2013 at 8:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Steve

It might be a good thing. Volcanic eruptions puts ash in the atmosphere which blocks some of the sun's rays. Result is cooling of earth. Best counter to global warming I can think of.

January 05 2013 at 7:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mveronica

Does anyone remember the history of what happened when Krakatoa erupted?
Those eruptions basically destroyed a summer, or so we are told.
I wonder if volcanic activity may, in fact, be contributing to climate change, not the other way around.

January 05 2013 at 4:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ccdae5

Sounds natural to me rather than man-made.

January 05 2013 at 8:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jkruse60

CLIMATE CHANGE IS FROM MAN TURNING FROM GOD...NO GOD NO BLESSINGS

January 04 2013 at 6:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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