Smoking guns and volcanic ash: the importance of sparse tephras in Greenland ice cores

  • Gill Plunkett Archaeology and Palaeoecology, School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK
  • Michael Sigl Climate and Environmental Physics, Physics Institute & Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
  • Jonathan R. Pilcher Archaeology and Palaeoecology, School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK
  • Joseph R. McConnell Division of Hydrological Sciences, Desert Research Institute, Reno, NV, USA
  • Nathan Chellman Division of Hydrological Sciences, Desert Research Institute, Reno, NV, USA
  • J.P. Steffensen Centre for Ice and Climate, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Ulf Büntgen Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK; Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Birmensdorf, Switzerland; Global Change Research Centre (CzechGlobe), Brno, Czech Republic; Department of Geography, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic
Keywords: Primary ashfall, resuspended volcanic ash, volcanic eruptions, Katla, dust storms, tephrochronology


Volcanic ash (fine-grained tephra) within Greenland ice cores can complement the understanding of past volcanism and its environmental and societal impacts. The presence of ash in sparse concentrations in the ice raises questions about whether such material represents primary ashfall in Greenland or resuspended (remobilized) material from continental areas. In this article, we investigate this issue by examining tephra content in quasi-annual samples from two Greenland ice cores during a period of ca. 20 years and considering their relationships with sulphur and particulate data from the same cores. We focus on the interval 815–835 CE as it encompasses a phase (818–822 CE) of heightened volcanogenic sulphur previously ascribed to an eruption of Katla, Iceland. We find that tephra is a frequent but not continuous feature within the ice, unlike similarly sized particulate matter. A solitary ash shard whose major element geochemistry is consistent with Katla corroborates the attribution of the 822±1 CE sulphur peak to this source, clearly showing that a single shard can signify primary ashfall. Other tephras are present in similarly low abundances, but their geochemistries are less certainly attributable to specific sources. Although these tephra shards tend to coincide with elevated sulphur and fine (<10 µm) particulates, they are not associated with increased coarse (>10 µm) particle concentrations that might be expected if the shards had been transported by dust storms. We conclude that the sparse shards derive from primary ashfall, and we argue that low tephra concentrations should not be dismissed as insignificant.


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How to Cite
Plunkett, G., Sigl, M., Pilcher, J. R., McConnell, J. R., Chellman, N., Steffensen, J., & Büntgen, U. (2020). Smoking guns and volcanic ash: the importance of sparse tephras in Greenland ice cores. Polar Research, 39.
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