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atmospheric aerosols

Geosciences Column: How erupting African volcanoes impact the Amazon’s atmosphere

Geosciences Column: How erupting African volcanoes impact the Amazon’s atmosphere

When volcanoes erupt, they can release into the atmosphere a number of different gases initially stored in their magma, such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide. These kinds of gases can have a big influence on Earth’s atmosphere, even at distances hundreds to thousands of kilometres away.

A team of researchers have found evidence that sulfur emissions from volcanic eruptions in Africa can be observed as far as South America, even creating an impact on the Amazon rainforest’s atmosphere. The results of their study were published last year in the EGU journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Amazon Tall Tower Observatory based in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil (Credit: Jsaturno via Wikimedia Commons)

In September 2014, the Amazon rainforest’s atmosphere experienced an unusually sharp spike in the concentration of sulfate aerosols. During this period, the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO) based in Brazil reported levels of sulfate never recorded before in the Amazon Basin.

Sulfate aerosols are particles that take form naturally from sulfur dioxide compounds in the atmosphere. When sulfate aerosols spread throughout the atmosphere, the particles often get in the way of the sun’s rays, reflecting the sunlight’s energy back to space. These aerosols can also help clouds take shape. Through these processes, the particles can create a cooling effect on Earth’s climate. Sulfate aerosols can also facilitate chemical reactions that degrade Earth’s ozone layer.

Fossil fuel and biomass burning have been known cause an increase in atmospheric sulfate, but researchers involved in the study found that neither human activity increased the level of sulfate in the atmosphere significantly. Instead, they examined whether a volcanic eruption could be responsible.

Scientists have suggested for some time that sulfur emissions in the Amazon could come from African volcanoes, but until now they’ve lacked proof to properly justify this idea.

Edited Landsat 8 image of the volcanoes Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo in Congo near the city of Goma. (Credit: Stuart Rankin via flickr, NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

However, in this study the research team involved caught volcanic pair in the act. By analysing satellite images and aerosol measurements, the researchers found evidence that in 2014, emissions from the neighboring Nyiragongo-Nyamuragira volcano complex in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, central Africa, increased the level of sulfate particles in the Amazon rainforest’s atmosphere.

Satellite observations revealed that volcanoes experienced two explosive events in September 2014, releasing sulfur emissions into the atmosphere. During that year, the volcanic complex was reportedly subject to frequent eruptive events, sending on average 14,400 tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere a day during such occasions. This amount of gas would weigh more than London’s supertall Shard skyscraper.

Map of SO2 plumes with VCD > 2.5 × 1014 molecules cm−2 color-coded by date of observation. The 15-day forward trajectories started at 4 km (above mean sea level, a.m.s.l.) at four locations within the plume detected on 13 September 2014 (light blue) are indicated by black lines with markers at 24 h intervals. (Credit: Jorge Saturno et al.)

The images further show that these emissions were transported across the South Atlantic Ocean to South America. The sulfate particles created from the emissions were then eventually picked up by an airborne atmospheric survey campaign and the ATTO in the Amazon.

The researchers of the study suggest that these observations indicate that African volcanoes can have an effect on the Amazon Basin’s atmosphere, though more research is needed to understand the full extent of this impact.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

References and further reading

Volcanic gases can be harmful to health, vegetation and infrastructure. Volcano Hazards Program. USGS.

Aerosols and Incoming Sunlight (Direct Effects). NASA Earth Observatory

Saturno, J., Ditas, F., Penning de Vries, M., Holanda, B. A., Pöhlker, M. L., Carbone, S., Walter, D., Bobrowski, N., Brito, J., Chi, X., Gutmann, A., Hrabe de Angelis, I., Machado, L. A. T., Moran-Zuloaga, D., Rüdiger, J., Schneider, J., Schulz, C., Wang, Q., Wendisch, M., Artaxo, P., Wagner, T., Pöschl, U., Andreae, M. O. and Pöhlker, C.: African volcanic emissions influencing atmospheric aerosols over the Amazon rain forest, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 18(14), 10391–10405, doi:10.5194/acp-18-10391-2018, 2018.

Imaggeo on Mondays: A spectacular rainbow

Imaggeo on Mondays: A spectacular rainbow

Back in February 2005, François Dulac and Rémi Losno worked in the field in the very remote Kerguelen Islands (also known as the Desolation Islands). Located in the southern Indian Ocean they are one, of the two, only exposed parts of the mostly submerged Kerguelen Plateau.

Our work consisted in sampling atmospheric aerosols and their deposition by rain on the island, which is a meeting point for the roaring fourties (strong westerly winds found in the Southern Hemisphere between 40 and 50 degrees latitude) and the equally turbulent furious fifties (which occur at more southerly latitudes still).

The aim of the study was to evaluate the input of chemical elements (in very low concentrations) derived from continental soil dust, to the remote surface waters of the Southern Ocean. Given the scarcity of land areas at this latitude, the particles were expected to have travelled long distances before arriving at Kerguelen.

For example, iron – one of the major elements in the Earth crust and soils – is of particular interest in this oceanic area because it is a micro-nutrient that limits the productivity (and related CO2 sink) of the Southern Ocean.

The island’s air was often very clear and the horizontal visibility unusually high, as can be seen in the photo. It highlights that atmospheric aerosol concentrations (the mixture of solid and liquid particles from natural and anthropogenic sources) are very low in this environment. Field sampling and subsequent chemical analyses require constraining protocols adapted to ultra-traces in order to minimize contamination of samples and blank levels.

The unique atmospheric conditions also meant we had problems estimating distances: we often found ourselves underestimating the stretch between two points during our long walks between the base and our remote sampling stations. In addition, the combination of very clean air, low sun and fast running atmospheric low-pressure systems carrying water clouds at low-level over the cold ocean make rainbows relatively frequent.

Walking back to the base after changing samples, we were caught in a rain shower. Raindrops were almost falling horizontally due to the high wind speed, leaving the soil dry downwind of the stones and rocks lying on the ground. A few minutes later clouds had passed and sunlight reflecting and diffracting in the cloud droplets offered us a spectacular semi-circular rainbow.

It was particularly special because it displayed an infrequent combination of (i) the main, classic, bright rainbow that shows up at 138-140 degrees from the direction of the sunlight, (ii) a secondary rainbow due to double reflection of sunlight in droplets that appears higher on the horizon at an angle of about 127-130 degrees and with an inversion of colours compared to the main bow (red inside), and (iii) one supernumerary rainbow with pastel green, pink and purple fringes on the inner side of the primary bow.

This stacked rainbow is caused by interferences and was first explained in 1804 by Thomas Young. It indicates the presence of small, uniformly sized droplets.  The dark area visible here on the right-hand side between the primary and secondary rainbows is called the Alexander’s band, after the ancient Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias comments on Aristotle’s Meteorology treatise, published in the early 3rd century. It is due to a lack of light resulting from the fact that diffracted rays are either reflected back inside the primary rainbow (causing this area to be brighter) or outside the secondary rainbow.

By François Dulac, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’EnvironnementCEA/LSCE, Gif-sur-Yvette, France

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.