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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Do volcanic eruptions enhance or diminish net primary production? Evidence from tree rings

  • Author(s): Krakauer, Nir Y
  • Randerson, James T
  • et al.

Low growth rates of atmospheric CO2 were observed following the 1991 Pinatubo (Luzon) volcanic eruption. One hypothesis for this CO2 anomaly is that since diffuse light is more efficiently used by forests than direct light, the increase in the diffuse fraction of sunlight due to scattering by volcanic sulfur aerosol in the years following the eruption substantially increased forest net primary production (NPP). However, other observations suggest a decrease in northern forest NPP because of the cooler conditions following the eruption. Here we used a global database of dated tree ring widths (which correlate with forest NPP) to test this hypothesis. Ice core records of sulfur deposition allowed us to identify the timing and magnitude of 23 Pinatubo-scale eruptions since 1000 CE. We found a significant decrease in ring width for trees in middle to high northern latitudes (north of 45°N) following eruption sulfur peaks. Decreases in tree ring widths were in the range of 2–8% and persisted for ∼8 years following sulfur peaks, with minima at around 4–6 years. Ring width changes at lower latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere (30°N to 45°N) and in the Southern Hemisphere (30°S to 56°S) were not significant. In the tropics (30°N to 30°S) the paucity of tree ring records did not permit the evaluation of NPP changes. Given that elevated aerosol levels and summer cooling last only ∼2–3 years after an eruption, the persistence of declines in northern tree growth for up to 8 years after eruptions implies some additional mechanism that links these shorter-lived global eruption effects to sustained changes in tree physiology, biogeochemistry, or microclimate. At least for this sample of trees, the beneficial effect of aerosol light scattering appears to be entirely offset by the deleterious effect of eruption-induced climate change.

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