Maybe Ben Franklin was wrong

April 7, 2011
Looking along the central fissure of Laki volcano, Iceland. Credit: Chmee2/Valtamer

( -- The eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in 1783-84 set off a cascade of catastrophe, spewing sulfuric clouds into Europe and eventually around the world. Poisonous mists and a resulting famine from loss of crops and livestock killed thousands in Iceland, up to a quarter of the population. An estimated 23,000 people in Britain died from inhaling toxic fumes. Acid rain, heat, cold, drought and floods have been attributed to the eruption, which lasted from June until February.

But a new study says that for all of its ill effects, the Laki eruption probably was not the main culprit behind one of the coldest winters in hundreds of years, as many scientists — and contemporary observer Benjamin Franklin -- have speculated.

Instead, that unusually cold and snowy winter in western Europe and eastern North America may have been caused by the same climate fluctuations that led to the harsh winter of 2009-2010, according to a team of scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Their research was recently published in Geophysical Research Letters. The scientists looked at 600 years of tree-ring data to reconstruct the shifts in two of the main drivers of the Earth’s climate, the North Atlantic Oscillation and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. They spliced onto that instrumental records from more recent years, and backed up the results with long instrumental, proxy and historical observations, said lead author Rosanne D’Arrigo of the Lamont Tree Ring Lab.

She says the group is talking about follow-up research looking at spacial patterns for past extreme event combinations of the different phases of the two climate oscillations.

When they finished their statistical analysis, the scientists concluded that the 1783-84 weather was most likely the result of a rare confluence: A warm tropical eastern Pacific Ocean -- El Niño -- combined with a strong negative pressure in the North Atlantic Ocean. The El Niño drives more moisture across North America, and the negative North Atlantic Oscillation drives cold Arctic air south over the East Coast and northwest Europe. The result: a rough winter.

One of the authors, Richard Seager, and colleagues at Lamont concluded in another paper last year that that’s exactly what happened in 2009-2010, as well. Ironically, despite the harsh winter in some areas, the global average temperature in 2009 made it one of the warmest years on record.

In the new paper, the researchers say they found that the combined El Niño and negative NAO in 2009-2010 were stronger than at any time since the 1400s. And through that time period the second strongest signals were in 1783-84.

The authors note that back in 1783-84, in the newly fledged United States, George Washington complained that the snow and ice kept him stranded in Mount Vernon between Christmas Eve and early March, and James Madison wrote from his home in Virginia about suffering through the worst winter in memory. Writing in 1784, Benjamin Franklin speculated that a persistent haze, perhaps from Icelandic volcanoes, could have blocked the sun sufficiently to cause the unusually cool summer of 1783.

Explore further: Climatologists: La Nina may bring warm late winter to Southeast

More information: Co-author Jason Smerdon has a nice rundown of the work in a blog post.

Related Stories

Converging weather patterns caused last winter's huge snows

July 26, 2010

The memory of last winter's blizzards may be fading in this summer's searing heat, but scientists studying them have detected a perfect storm of converging weather patterns that had little relation to climate change. The ...

Changes in solar activity affect local climate

December 8, 2010

Raimund Muscheler is a researcher at the Department of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at Lund University in Sweden. In the latest issue of the journal Science, he and his colleagues have described how the surface water temperature ...

Recommended for you

Mountain glaciers shrinking across the West

October 22, 2017

Until recently, glaciers in the United States have been measured in two ways: placing stakes in the snow, as federal scientists have done each year since 1957 at South Cascade Glacier in Washington state; or tracking glacier ...

Carbon coating gives biochar its garden-greening power

October 20, 2017

For more than 100 years, biochar, a carbon-rich, charcoal-like substance made from oxygen-deprived plant or other organic matter, has both delighted and puzzled scientists. As a soil additive, biochar can store carbon and ...

Cool roofs have water saving benefits too

October 20, 2017

The energy and climate benefits of cool roofs have been well established: By reflecting rather than absorbing the sun's energy, light-colored roofs keep buildings, cities, and even the entire planet cooler. Now a new study ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (6) Apr 07, 2011
Have they considered if both climate fluctuations and Icelandic volcanoes acted together?
1.4 / 5 (5) Apr 07, 2011
Yes, because huge amounts of particulates in the air don't effect the amount of sunlight hitting the planet...

1 / 5 (3) Apr 07, 2011
How about the possibility that perhaps the sun was emmiting 0.2% less energy to the earth? Read up on Piers Corbyn.

Isn't all "Warming" on Earth that we owe our survival to because the quintillion watts of energy the sun pump out every second? Vary it even 1% and it causes warming or cooling on a solar system scale.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 07, 2011
Have they considered if both climate fluctuations and Icelandic volcanoes acted together?
Notice the wording (emphasis mine):

"But a new study says that for all of its ill effects, the Laki eruption probably was not the MAIN culprit behind one of the coldest winters in hundreds of years..."

They are not denying that the volcano had some effect. All they are saying is that the volcano would have been a secondary contributor, and that even without it the winters that year would have been unusually harsh.
1 / 5 (3) Apr 08, 2011
Or perhaps it was God's will!
5 / 5 (3) Apr 08, 2011
I'm assuming the author doesn't like old Ben there based on its title.

Apparently, this article indicates Ben was correct, but Ben didn't have a dozen satellites orbiting earth monitoring the ocean temps in real time in the 1780s. Give his due that he realized that such an event would cause a slight nuclear winter.

Oh, and just to make sure we get started right on PhysOrg, I need to put these in my post.

"Religion, religion, God, Gog, left wing, right wing".

2 / 5 (4) Apr 08, 2011
Have they considered if both climate fluctuations and Icelandic volcanoes acted together?
Yup. You have identified yet another overly simplified weather/climate study. Weather/climate, being born of chaos, never has only one cause.

And the title is terrible. Benjamin Franklin was an icon of science.
not rated yet Apr 10, 2011
"El Niño did it!"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.