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Can small volcanic eruptions affect global climate? (+video)

New research suggests that assessments of climate variability should take volcanic activity into account.

Environmental scientist Jane C. S. Long examines an idea to fight climate change by spraying sulfuric aerosols into the atmosphere. Although cheap and effective, Long warns that the long-term side effects of such a large-scale geoengineering effort would be unknown.
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Even small volcanic eruptions could have a big impact on global climate, new research suggests.

A relatively small eruption in the summer of 2011 produced gases such as sulfur dioxide that reached high in the atmosphere and spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere, combining with water vapor and forming particles that reflect light and prevent it from reaching Earth, thus potentially resulting in a cooling effect, according to a study detailed in the July 6 issue of the journal Science.

Previously, only larger, explosive volcanoes — such as the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo — were thought capable of lofting gases into the stratosphere, the layer of Earth's atmosphere that sits above the troposphere, the layer that we dwell in and where most weather occurs. The material spewed out by Pinatubo reduced global temperatures by about 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius) during the following year.

Right time and place

Gases and particles emitted at lower altitudes below the stratosphere are typically quickly cleared out by rain and weather, said study co-author Alan Robock, a researcher at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. But this is not in the case concerning the eruption of the Nabro Volcano in Eritrea, in northeast Africa, on June 13, 2011. Warm rising air from last summer's Asian monsoon appears to have had the opposite effect: It gave the volcanic fumes a little boost and allowed gases to reach the stratosphere, where they last longer, Robock told OurAmazingPlanet.

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