IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Thermal, Dynamical and Chemistry Perturbations Forced by Volcanic Aerosols

Four distinct mechanisms have been invoked with regards to the climate response to volcanic aerosol RF. First, these forcings can directly affect the Earth’s radiative balance and thus alter surface temperature. Second, they introduce horizontal and vertical heating gradients; these can alter the stratospheric circulation, in turn affecting the troposphere. Third, the forcings can interact with internal climate system variability (e.g., El Niño-Southern Oscillation, North Atlantic Oscillation, Quasi-Biennial Oscillation) and dynamical noise, thereby triggering, amplifying or shifting these modes (see Section 9.2; Yang and Schlesinger, 2001; Stenchikov et al., 2004). Fourth, volcanic aerosols provide surfaces for heterogeneous chemistry affecting global stratospheric ozone distributions (Chipperfield et al., 2003) and perturbing other trace gases for a considerable period following an eruption. Each of the above mechanisms has its own spatial and temporal response pattern. In addition, the mechanisms could depend on the background state of the climate system, and thus on other forcings (e.g., due to well-mixed gases, Meehl et al., 2004), or interact with each other.

The complexity of radiative-dynamical response forced by volcanic impacts suggests that it is important to calculate aerosol radiative effects interactively within the model rather than prescribe them (Andronova et al., 1999; Broccoli et al., 2003). Despite differences in volcanic aerosol parameters employed, models computing the aerosol radiative effects interactively yield tropical and global mean lower-stratospheric warmings that are fairly consistent with each other and with observations (Ramachandran et al., 2000; Hansen et al., 2002; Yang and Schlesinger, 2002; Stenchikov et al., 2004; Ramaswamy et al., 2006b); however, there is a considerable range in the responses in the polar stratosphere and troposphere. The global mean warming of the lower stratosphere is due mainly to aerosol effects in the longwave spectrum, in contrast to the flux changes at the TOA that are essentially due to aerosol effects in the solar spectrum. The net radiative effects of volcanic aerosols on the thermal and hydrologic balance (e.g., surface temperature and moisture) have been highlighted by recent studies (Free and Angell, 2002; Jones et al., 2003; see Chapter 6; and see Chapter 9 for significance of the simulated responses and model-observation comparisons for 20th-century eruptions). A mechanism closely linked to the optical depth perturbation and ensuing warming of the tropical lower stratosphere is the potential change in the cross-tropopause water vapour flux (Joshi and Shine, 2003; see Section 2.3.7).

Anomalies in the volcanic-aerosol induced global radiative heating distribution can force significant changes in atmospheric circulation, for example, perturbing the equator-to-pole heating gradient (Stenchikov et al., 2002; Ramaswamy et al., 2006a; see Section 9.2) and forcing a positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation that in turn causes a counterintuitive boreal winter warming at middle and high latitudes over Eurasia and North America (Perlwitz and Graf, 2001; Stenchikov et al., 2002, 2004, 2006; Shindell et al., 2003b, 2004; Perlwitz and Harnik, 2003; Rind et al., 2005; Miller et al., 2006).

Stratospheric aerosols affect the chemistry and transport processes in the stratosphere, resulting in the depletion of ozone (Brasseur and Granier, 1992; Tie et al., 1994; Solomon et al., 1996; Chipperfield et al., 2003). Stenchikov et al. (2002) demonstrated a link between ozone depletion and Arctic Oscillation response; this is essentially a secondary radiative mechanism induced by volcanic aerosols through stratospheric chemistry. Stratospheric cooling in the polar region associated with a stronger polar vortex initiated by volcanic effects can increase the probability of formation of polar stratospheric clouds and therefore enhance the rate of heterogeneous chemical destruction of stratospheric ozone, especially in the NH (Tabazadeh et al., 2002). The above studies indicate effects on the stratospheric ozone layer in the wake of a volcanic eruption and under conditions of enhanced anthropogenic halogen loading. Interactive microphysics-chemistry-climate models (Rozanov et al., 2002, 2004; Shindell et al., 2003b; Timmreck et al., 2003; Dameris et al., 2005) indicate that aerosol-induced stratospheric heating affects the dispersion of the volcanic aerosol cloud, thus affecting the spatial RF. However the models’ simplified treatment of aerosol microphysics introduces biases; further, they usually overestimate the mixing at the tropopause level and intensity of meridional transport in the stratosphere (Douglass et al., 2003; Schoeberl et al., 2003). For present climate studies, it is practical to utilise simpler approaches that are reliably constrained by aerosol observations.

Because of its episodic and transitory nature, it is difficult to give a best estimate for the volcanic RF, unlike the other agents. Neither a best estimate nor a level of scientific understanding was given in the TAR. For the well-documented case of the explosive 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption, there is a good scientific understanding. However, the limited knowledge of the RF associated with prior episodic, explosive events indicates a low level of scientific understanding (Section 2.9, Table 2.11).