Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society

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Volcano Weather

by Perry Pezzolanella

Volcanic eruptions are a natural occurrence on Earth, but most of us are totally oblivious to their effects. As non-existent as their effects may seem, there actually have been some profound effects. Freakishly chilly summers or a severe blizzard may seem par for the course, but usually these can be explained by a huge volcanic eruption somewhere far away. The most explosive volcanic eruptions have played a role in history. Volcanoes are an important aspect of several other planets and moons geology and in some cases the volcanic eruptions have been so violent that they permanently decimated the entire world. One volcanic eruption on Earth in 1815 came very close to destroying the way of life for millions with not even upstate New York escaping the most bizarre summer that was soon to follow, or perhaps never come.

The Earth suffered from several huge volcanic eruptions leading up to 1815 causing the atmosphere to be choked with ash and aerosol haze dimming the sun and cooling the planet, and then came Mount Tambora. On April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded with a force unlike any other volcano in recent history. Around 19 cubic miles of ash and rock were hurled nearly 30 miles into the atmosphere. The explosion was heard nearly 2000 miles away and killed 17,000 people. The ash went clear up into the stratosphere where no rain or snow could wash it out. The sulfur dioxide from the eruption reacted with water to create an aerosol haze which effectively reflected sunlight and cooled the Earth. It took about a year before the full impact of this eruption on the global climate was felt. Temperatures cooled an average of 3ºF during 1816. A normal winter gave way to an uneventful spring, but May 1816 was the start of “The Year Without a Summer,” or “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death,” where weather records for summer cold and snow, including local records, still hold up to this day.

A brutal coldwave arrived in early May 1816 effectively killing the buds on trees and fruit blossoms throughout the northeastern U.S. down to Virginia and up into Canada. It warmed up enough in mid May giving hope that spring had finally arrived, so crops were planted, but then came another fierce coldwave in late May with the weather turning truly backwards in early June. Relentless cold fronts pounded the area and a nor’easter developed on June 6 that caused snow squalls in Utica, the Mohawk Valley and even Albany had accumulating snow. It was far worse in the Catskills with heavy snow and up to a foot of snow fell in Vermont and Quebec with drifts of several feet. Boston even had a trace of snow, the only snow ever recorded in June; that record stands to this very day! Temperatures throughout the region fell into the 20s and the winter storm did not ease until mid June. The weather threw a temper tantrum on June 22 as it soared to over 100º in many places near Boston only to be followed by a 4th of July so cold that coats had to be worn. There were frequent frosts and freezes during July and August as nighttime temperatures dipped close to freezing many times. It was a dry summer and often quite cloudy which added to the chill and gloom thanks to the ash and haze high above. Forest fires broke out in western New York from the drought. A series of severe freezes began August 21 with ice as thick as a dollar bill on ponds near Utica dealt the final blow to a growing season that pretty much failed. September tried to behave normally but another intense freeze in late September finished off everything. The year was a disaster with famine and disease due to food shortages. Europe and Asia, especially China, also felt the effects of the cold but unlike here, it was a stormy, soggy summer. The gloom in Europe kept people inside and inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. So, the infamous “Year Without a Summer” was good for two things: beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and the birth of Frankenstein. It also inspired people to move west and is considered a catalyst for the westward migration. Nobody at the time knew that a volcano was the cause for all this grief.

Volcano weather has occurred locally in our lifetimes and the effects have been well-documented by this author, being an avid weather observer locally since 1970. Indeed, we have had close calls with years without summers, although nothing approaching the severity of 1816. El Chichon erupted in Mexico on March 28, 1982, and the ash quickly spread through the atmosphere darkening the total lunar eclipse on July 5-6, and the one that followed on December 30 was nearly black meaning the ash had completely spread around the Earth. That summer was nothing extraordinary until August 29 when an all-time August low of 32º was recorded with a light frost. This remains the earliest frost on record and even though nothing was harmed locally, there were reports of sensitive plants freezing in sheltered areas out in the countryside. Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines on June 15, 1991, shooting ash up to 22 miles into the stratosphere. The sulfur dioxide created an aerosol haze with beautiful sunrises and sunsets. It was 1992 that came close to being a duplicate of the “Year Without a Summer”. The hottest day of that year was 91ºF on May 23 and a month later, June 23, it fell to a record low of 35º with frost in the hills; the highs struggled to get into the 50s for several days. There were no more 90-degree days all summer and snow fell in the Adirondacks on September 30 with this author observing it sticking to the vegetation along the roads in Old Forge! Snowflakes did get as close as the suburbs around Utica later in the day as temperatures plummeted with a cold rain all day. The total lunar eclipse on December 9 was so dark that the Moon totally disappeared! The ash and haze were so bad that this was, and still is, the darkest lunar eclipse in recent memory. The excessive ash may have also contributed to one of the most ferocious storms of all time in the U.S during March 12-14, 1993. Often called “Superstorm ’93” or the “Storm of the Century” this powerful nor’easter lashed the eastern U.S. from Cuba to the Canadian Maritimes with hurricane force winds, tornadoes, floods, and a record of 42” of snow in Syracuse during a blizzard. The cooling effects of both volcanic episodes did not last as the summers of 1983 and 1993 had a good share of 90º to nearly 100º heatwaves lasting well into September.

Volcanoes are found on other worlds, especially Venus where there are thousands and there is evidence that several may be active today. There have been spikes in the amount of sulfur dioxide, a primary gas of volcanic eruptions, in the Venusian atmosphere. While volcanoes on Earth generally help regulate the climate, those on Venus have completely mutilated it. Venus may have had shallow seas of water and perhaps even life, but it was all boiled away when the volcanoes poured huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere triggering a runaway greenhouse effect as temperatures soared to nearly 900ºF. Volcanoes on Mars in its early history may have warmed the planet enough to create an atmosphere where rain could fall and water flow into vast seas. The numerous volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon, Io, are so powerful that the plumes tower nearly 300 miles above the surface and have turned Io inside out several times in its history. Cryovolcanoes, which erupt a slushy chilly brew of liquid water, ammonia, and nitrogen towering over 10,000 feet tall on Pluto, are dormant today but played a role in sculpting the landscape and perhaps contributed to its vast heart-shaped nitrogen glacier and hazy atmosphere. Europa, Enceladus, and Triton all have geysers of water and/or nitrogen, another form of volcanism, owing to the heat beneath the surface. Titan, a moon of Saturn, may also have cryovolcanism involving water, methane, and possibly nitrogen much like Pluto contributing to its thick atmosphere.

Volcanoes and geysers are an important part of the geology and climate of a world. They release heat that has built up within and dredge up important elements and minerals releasing them onto the surface and into the atmosphere. They create and can destroy an atmosphere and more times than not govern the fate of a world. Without them, life on Earth may have never gained the upper hand.