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Volcanoes Could Trigger Bigger Climate Impact Than Thought

iceland volcano eyjafjallajokull
The plume of ash and steam rising from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano reached 17,000 to 20,000 feet (5 to 6 kilometers) into the atmosphere on May 10, 2010, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite captured this image. (Image credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC)

Volcanic eruptions might affect Earth's climate more than thought by releasing far more weather-altering particles than scientists' suspected, new research finds.

To help tease out the influence of volcanoes on global climate, researchers investigated the huge eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland on March 20, 2010. They monitored the volcano's enormous plume, which spread all over Europe, from a research station in France.

The eruption rapidly ejected large ash particles into the atmosphere. The researchers then analyzed how many secondary particles this ash generated upon reacting chemically with other components of the atmosphere. The particles created from the eruptions were mostly composed of sulfuric acid and grew over time.

If sulfuric acid particles become large enough, they can behave as seeds for cloud formation. Clouds, in turn, can alter the amount and type of precipitation an area receives.

The atmospheric data the researchers collected during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption suggest that volcanic eruptions can release up to 100 million times more ash particles than thought. In addition, seeding particles can form at lower altitudes and farther distances from volcanoes than past studies had suggested.

"Most previous studies did not properly account for low-altitude impacts of volcanoes," researcher Julien Boulon, a physicist at the Laboratory of Meteorology Physics of the French National Center for Scientific Research and Blaise Pascal University in Aubiere, France, told OurAmazingPlanet.

The findings, detailed online today (July 11) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, point to the potentially broader climate influence that volcanoes could have.

This story was provided by OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site to LiveScience.

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.