Ancient Volcanic Activity in Ice

  • By Drew Gannon
  • Posted 11.01.17
  • NOVA

Researchers try to prove the existence of a 13th century volcanic eruption using ice.

Running Time: 01:49


Ancient Volcanic Activity in Ice

Published November 1, 2017

Oscreen: 1250 AD

Famine devastates Europe

30% of London is starving

Could this be a result of…

a massive volcanic eruption?

The answer lies in ancient ice.

Nelia Dunbar: If there were a big volcanic eruption that produced a lot of sulphur, that sulphur should be preserved in this ice. And that’s what we’re interested in studying.

Joe McConnell: So this piece is from around 1250, 1255 AD. This represents about three years, ah, so this is roughly one year, roughly one year and roughly one year.

Nelia: These ice cores hold an incredible record of past climate. In between the snow crystals are little pockets of atmosphere that are little time capsules that represent the composition of the atmosphere at the time the snow fell. Over time, more snow will fall on the ice sheet and that record is locked in.

Joe: Up to the right and then up to there. Okay, so now we’re ready to, ah, start the analysis.

Onscreen: For the researchers to unlock the record they must destroy it.

As the ice melts the mass spectrometer reads out the chemicals that were in the atmosphere hundreds of years a go.

Joe: So we’re seeing the responses come up on all the various instruments right now. So this would be 1258 and you can see the acid now has just skyrocketed, a huge increase in sulphur. So it’s certainly pointing to volcanism.

Nelia: Okay, so that must have been a really big volcanic event.

Joe: Yeah, absolutely huge.



Digital Editor
Drew Gannon
Killer Volcanoes
Produced and Directed by
Oliver Twinch
Edited by
Ben Lavington Martin


Fredrick Holm
Filmed by
Nedjima Berder
Jay Dacey
Will Fewkes
Jean-Pierre Rivalain
Paul Williams



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