Volcanic eruptions and Northern Hemisphere winter climate

The ability of the climate models submitted to the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 (CMIP5) database to simulate the Northern Hemisphere winter climate following a large tropical volcanic eruption is assessed. When sulfate aerosols are produced by volcanic injections into the tropical stratosphere and spread by the stratospheric circulation, it not only causes globally averaged tropospheric cooling but also a localized heating in the lower stratosphere, which can cause major dynamical feedbacks. Observations show a lower stratospheric and surface response during the following one or two Northern Hemisphere (NH) winters, that resembles the positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Simulations from 13 CMIP5 models that represent tropical eruptions in the 19th and 20th century are examined, focusing on the large-scale regional impacts associated with the large-scale circulation during the NH winter season. The models generally fail to capture the NH dynamical response following eruptions. They do not sufficiently simulate the observed post volcanic strengthened NH polar vortex, positive NAO, or NH Eurasian warming pattern, and they tend to overestimate the cooling in the tropical troposphere. The findings are confirmed by a superposed epoch analysis of the NAO index for each model. The study confirms previous similar evaluations and raises concern for the ability of current climate models to simulate the response of a major mode of global circulation variability to external forcings. This is also of concern for the accuracy of geoengineering modeling studies that assess the atmospheric response to stratosphere-injected particles.


Comparison between reanalysis and multimodel mean. Composite anomaly averaged after 2 post-volcanic winters for (a and b) near-surface temperature (K), (c and d) mean sea level pressure (hPa), (e and f) 200 and (g and h) 50 hPa geopotential (m). Hatching displays, for the left column areas at or over 95% significance using a local two tailed t-test, for the right column where at least 90% of models agree on the sign of the anomaly. Notice the different scale in Figures a/b and Figures c/d.


Driscoll, S., A. Bozzo, L. J. Gray, A. Robock, and G. Stenchikov (2012), Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 (CMIP5) simulations of climate following volcanic eruptions, J. Geophys. Res., 117, D17105, doi:10.1029/2012JD017607.