19th century chronicles offer clues to mystery volcano | Science News

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19th century chronicles offer clues to mystery volcano

Meteorological records narrow down time and place of massive eruption that helped trigger decade of extreme cold

By
10:00am, September 27, 2014
purple twilight

VOLCANIC AFTERGLOW  Particles blasted into the atmosphere by volcanoes can create foggy, colorful effects in the sky, such as this purple twilight that followed the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.

Reports of hazy, colorful skies may offer the first known historical evidence of an enigmatic volcanic eruption that occurred more than 200 years ago. The newly uncovered records help researchers narrow down the time and place of the explosion that kicked off the coldest decade of the last 500 years, the 1810s.

Writings from a Colombian astronomer and a Peruvian physician describe a silvery sun, brilliant twilights and dimmed stars starting in December 1808. These are telltale meteorological aftermaths of a mighty eruption that spewed climate-altering particles into the atmosphere.

Because of sulfur deposits in polar ice cores, which act as a physical record of volcanic activity, scientists had suspected that such an eruption occurred in 1808 or 1809. But they knew little else. “This eruption had been speculated for a long time, and until now there were no reports of any kind,” says environmental chemist Jihong Cole-Dai of South Dakota State University in Brookings.

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