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Observations of a stratospheric aerosol veil from a tropical volcanic eruption in December 1808: is this the Unknown ~1809 eruption?

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1707-1722
Number of pages16
JournalClimate of the Past
Issue number5
Early online date16 Sep 2014
DateAccepted/In press - 30 Jul 2014
DateE-pub ahead of print - 16 Sep 2014
DatePublished (current) - Oct 2014


The Unknown eruption of 1808/1809 was the second most explosive SO2-rich volcanic eruption in the last two centuries, eclipsed only by the cataclysmic VEI 7 Tambora eruption in April 1815. However, no eyewitness accounts of the event, and therefore its location, or the atmospheric optical effects associated with its aerosols have been documented from historical records. Here we report on two meteorological observations dating from the end of 1808 that describe phenomena we attribute to volcanic-induced atmospheric effects caused by the Unknown eruption. The observations were made by two highly respected Latin American scientists. The first, Francisco José de Caldas, describes a stratospheric aerosol haze, a "transparent cloud that obstructs the sun's brilliance", that was visible over the city of Bogotá, Colombia, from 11 December 1808 to at least mid-February 1809. The second, made by physician José Hipólito Unanue in Lima, Peru, describes sunset after-glows (akin to well-documented examples known to be caused by stratospheric volcanic aerosols) from mid-December 1808 to February 1809. These two accounts provide direct evidence of a persistent stratospheric aerosol veil that spanned at least 2600 km into both Northern and Southern Hemispheres and establish that the source was a tropical volcano. Moreover, these observations confirm that the Unknown eruption, previously identified and tentatively assigned to February 1809 (±4 months) from analysis of ice core sulfate records, occurred in late November or early December 1808 (4 December 1808 ±7 days). This date has important implications for the associated hemispheric climate impacts and temporal pattern of aerosol dispersal.

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