Could Past Global Climate Have Been Changed by an Eruption … in Scotland?

By Erik Klemetti | January 25, 2019 10:37 am
Sgùrr of Eigg in Scotland, the location of some of the deposits of a massive explosive eruption in Scotland 56 million years ago. Flickr/Kevin Walsh.

Sgùrr of Eigg in Scotland, the location of some of the deposits of a massive explosive eruption in Scotland 56 million years ago. Flickr/Kevin Walsh.

We don’t tend to think of the British Isles as a land of volcanoes. However, over geologic timescales, things can be very different. ~50-60 million years ago, the North Atlantic Ocean was opening and the area around the modern North Sea was rife with volcanic activity. Much of these eruptions were lava flows, producing flood basalt provinces similar to the Columbia River Basalt — but now mainly under the waters and ice of the North Atlantic and Greenland. Yet, over in what is called the British Paleogene Igneous Province (BPIP), there may have been massive, explosive eruptions that rivaled the largest eruptions of the past 500 years.

A lot of rock can be lost over ~56 million years. The effects of erosion, especially thanks to multiple pulses of rivers and ice sheets, can erase much of the evidence of even giant geologic events. Such is the case in Scotland, where the remnants of the volcanism are scattered across the landscape. Trying to match up pieces of volcanic material that are tens of kilometers apart can be tricky: do they represent a single, big eruption or many smaller eruptions (or possibly not even an eruption at all, but rather magma cooling underground!) The best ways to match these rocks is to look for clues in the composition and textures of the minerals and rocks.

If two areas have the same types of minerals that show similar sizes and shapes of those crystals, then maybe they are from the same event. If the bulk composition of the rocks match, that’s even better. However, the processes of alteration of rocks by metamorphism or weathering can change bulk composition, so we need some even better evidence. That’s when we turn to isotopes of elements like neodymium, strontium, oxygen, lead and more. Many of the elements aren’t moved around by alteration, so they lock in the values of the processes that formed the rocks. So, match your isotope compositions, likely match your rocks.

That’s what Valentin Troll and others did for some suspicious rocks in Scotland. They recently published a paper in Nature Scientific Reports that implicates an area on the Isle of Skye in Scotland for a massive volcanic eruption that might have been 5 to 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. That would put it in with the aforementioned Pinatubo and Krakatau, disgorging possibly 5 to 15 cubic kilometers of magma in a giant explosion. There isn’t much left of this eruption beyond some units of pitchstone (think of an old, weathered, dark volcanic rock like obsidian), but several areas across northern Scotland appear to match in minerals, composition and isotopes — all signs they might be a single volcanic deposit.

Reconstruction of the potential pyroclastic flows from the Isle of Skye eruption 56 million years ago. From Valentin and others (2019), Nature Scientific Reports.

Reconstruction of the potential pyroclastic flows from the Isle of Skye eruption 56 million years ago. From Valentin and others (2019), Nature Scientific Reports.

If this is the case, then an eruption ~56.7 million years ago in Scotland may have buried over 1000 square kilometers of countryside in ash and pyroclastic flow deposits. An eruption of this size would likely produced an ash plume that reached at least 40 kilometers, injecting volcanic aerosols like sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. This would spread the material globally and potentially impact global climate.

Interestingly, there is a significant climate event around 55.5 million years ago called the Paleogene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) where global temperatures were high. Although this single eruption wouldn’t have caused such an event (likely it cooled the climate for a few years), if you have lots of these events, it could tip the planet towards climate change. The evidence from places around the North Atlantic is that there were lots of big explosive eruptions related to the opening of the Atlantic, so maybe they played a role in the PETM transition.

Back to Scotland! The chunks of rocks that were evidence of an eruption can be matched using these composition and isotope tools to rocks that cooled underground on the Isle of Skye. This means that these intrusive rocks are likely the source of this massive eruption, implicating that some of the pyroclastic flows may have traveled up to 40 kilometers (see above) from the source! This new evidence from the Isle of Skye marks the first time a massive, explosive eruption has been identified and potentially sourced in the British Isles.

So, go back 56 million years ago, and what is now moors and mountains was a geologically-active region with volcanoes that may have rivaled some of the largest caldera volcanoes today. However, the endless reworking of the surface of the planet has erased the much of the evidence of even a gigantic and globally-significant event like the Isle of Skye eruption. It took the equivalent of volcanic forensics to piece together the scene of the blast.

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  • OWilson

    Some very interesting things were going on 60 million years ago.

    Asteriod impact, great exinctions, and massive volcanism, all over the globe.

    Perhaps reated?

    • OWilson

      Well Mikey, your automatic downvote, is better than nothing, in answer to a simple question!

      Lol

      • Mike Richardson

        Not automatic, but earned, like all the rest. You’re downvoted for not proofreading — “asteriod,” ” extinctions. ” If you’re that eager to see your words in public, make sure you are at least articulate. It’s painful, if somewhat humorous, to read — like “cofvefe” or “hamberders.” 😁

        • OWilson

          So nothing on topic as usual? :)

          • Mike Richardson

            You changed the topic to a discussion of downvotes youself. Do I need to help you with your memory as well as spelling? Also, your assertion that your downvotes are automatic is quite false, as I do not downvote all of your posts, and in fact upvoted one just a couple of weeks ago. You can check your history and see!

            As for the topic of the blog article and your question, the asteroid impact that left the Chicxulub crater occurred approximately 65-66 million years ago, not 60 million. The Deccan Traps volcanic eruptions had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years prior to this so there’s no way either event could have caused the other. Both, however, likely contributed to the mass extinction event. Hopefully this answer to your question alleviates some ignorance on the topic. :)

          • Jake Diamond

            I believe you are correct Mike Richardson…

            Funny… Doing a web search is funny when asking what caused the fifth mass extinction… One article says there was so much plant life it lowered the CO2 level and there was an ice age that killed off the dinosaurs…. Another says it happened 440million Years ago due to an asteroid strike that caused strong volcanic activity in Siberia that caused the mass extinction.

            From the study of rocks, Dr. Gerta Keller, a paleontology and geology professor at Princeton, University and Dr. Michael J. Benton who is also a geologist and a professor of paleontology and a professor at the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol give us the most plausible science of what caused the 5th mass extinction.

            They both say that strong geological evidence of very long lasting volcanic activity loaded the atmosphere with CO2 and global warming occurred, just as is has done now from a high CO2 level.

            The global warming finally caused the ice and permafrost in the Arctic region to melt away and vast amounts of methane gas, CH4, escaped from the melted permafrost and caused even stronger global warming.

            As the methane feedback to the global warming kicked in the ocean life died off and the oxygen level dropped to a low percentage and the mass extinction happened.

            It was a near repeat of the 4th mass extinction only not as severe as the 4th extinction… Actually what happened during those two mass extinctions is going on now, it just hasn’t reached the mass extinction level yet, but it is close now.

            The major difference now of course is the high level of CO2 is from human activity of burning fossil fuels, coal, natural gas and oil… We had better act now to prevent another mass extinction… The 6th will be a human die off, not dinosaurs.

          • Mike Richardson

            It really seems like the Cretaceous die-off was due to a perfect storm of global disasters occurring during a geologically short span of time — too short for evolutionary adaptation in the case of the dinosaurs and other large animals at the time. The asteroid was probably the final nail in the coffin, but things were pretty rough for the last 10 million years of that period even before that.

            As for us, we’re supposedly brighter than the dinosaurs, but continuing to burn things that were alive while they were will cause us to join us. They didn’t have a choice about extinction — we actually do.

          • Jake Diamond

            Yes Mike that is pretty much what Drs. Benton and Keller say… One thing they say about the 4th and the 5th mass extinctions is, after the ocean plant life died, life died suddenly when the oxygen level plummeted… The entire event however took over a million years.

            It took a long time for the volcanic activity to get the CO2 level up in the 400ppm levels for example… And they believe the asteroid strike caused more volcanic activity…. We have managed to do what nature did in a million years in less than 140 years by burning coal, natural gas and petroleum.

            I want to see strong global action taken to replace burning coal and natural gas in electrical power plants with clean energy and try to stop the rise of the CO2 level, but I don’t see that happening in time to prevent all of the Arctic’s methane to release and enter the atmosphere.

            When that happens the party will be over like it was 252 and 65 million years ago… These global warming deniers like this OWilson fellla aren’t helping at all.

          • OWilson

            My carbon footprint is close to zero. No transportation, no heat, walk to everything and eat only locally gown and produced fresh foods. Go to bed when the sun goes down and wake up with the local cock crows! :)

            How are you, Al Gore, Kerry, Leo di Caprio and Lady Gaga, and the Pope, on that score?

            Lol

          • Jake Diamond

            So what? So why do you continue to deny the science of AGW? And you never post any comments after sunset? LOL.

          • OWilson

            I deny the lies opportunistic politicians have told and exaggerated. Doomsday scenarios, catastrophic predictions, Great Extinctions, the long past “tipping points”, Arctic Ice gone by 2015, Tuvalo washing away, and most of all the proposed Marxist “solution” to funnel $trillions from the developed world to the third world in “climate reparations”!

            Lol

            And no, I do not post after sunset!

            An hour or so in the morning with coffee, and then on with real life!

            Ask Mikey, he and his true believers have posted here about my timelines in the past!

            Lol

          • Jake Diamond

            So you don’t deny the Greenhouse gases science or the facts that the Arctic Ocean’s perennial ice is gone and warming ocean water is killing the coral reefs? That’s good.

          • OWilson

            I believe in data, not opportunistic political fortune tellers, Fake News alarmists, shamen, medicine men, Socialists and Marxists, (follow the money) and snake oil salesmen. :)

            Not to mention Al Gore and his Hollywood air headed believers!

            Scientists, generally, are more honest than politicians. They sprinkle their “possible” scenarios with lots of Ifs, Mays, Coulds and other reservations and qualifications, which always serves them well when the predicted End of Times Tipping Points, pass, largely ignored, time after time! :)

          • Jake Diamond

            Well that rant is interesting Mr. Wilson, but it is good to see you agree the Arctic Ocean’s perennial ice has melted away and since 2013 global warming has warmed the ocean waters’ so much that most of the coral reefs have been dying at a fast rate… Do you know scientists say almost all of our coral reefs will be dead by 3023? That is very bad.

            You probably also agree that mountain glaciers all around the world are melting away at a fast rate… And I’m sure you agree the current global warming is the result of humans burning fossil fuels, coal, natural gas and petroleum… Those that deny that are really stupid huh?

          • OWilson

            I’m not responsible for what others believe, or deny!

            I pay attention to NOAA’s monthly satellite temperatures, that show a warming anomaly of 0.25 degrees, over the entire satellite record of 40 years! Then I do the math!

            Lol

          • Jake Diamond

            Well good for you Mr. Wilson, It’s good to know you aren’t stupid.

          • Mike Richardson

            I won’t say that conclusion is “settle science,” but regardless, he isn’t being entirely honest. The
            monthly NOAA satellite temperature readings are cherry-picked findings relying solely on the UAH interpretations of the satellite date, and not the RSS readings which were calibrated to take into account the diurnal drift of the satellites. The RSS readings also strongly correlate with NOAA’s ground-based readings. The corrected dataset shows a 0.125°C [0.225°F] rate of warming per decade from 1979 to 2014.

            Ol’Wilson also ignores satellite data from the GRACE survey of ice loss, and satellite measurements of rising sea levels and sea temperatures. I’ve brought these points up to him before, so you can be sure this omission is deliberate and a conscious effort at misrepresenting the actual science on the subject. Not skepticism, but denialism.

          • OWilson

            As always, Mikey take up your complaint that NOAA is publishing fake data monthly of lower trophosphere temperatures, from their ever new and improved satellites.

            As for cherry picking, they publish the entire 40 year record up to date, at the beginning of every month. I post that info in it’s entirety!

            You accept their satellite ice data, and satellite sea level data, and satellite sea temperature, which we were not discussing, yet not their satellite air temperature data!

            There’s a word for that, and it isn’t “cherry picking”!

            Flash!

            November 17, 2018 – NOAA and NASA

            “The United States has launched the first of its new generation of highly advanced polar-orbiting meteorological satellites. Known as JPSS-1 (for Joint Polar Satellite System), the new satellite is the first in a series of missions that the US is contributing to the space-based component of the WMO Integrated Global Observing System (WIGOS) through to 2038.

            JPSS-1 will circle the globe just over 14 times per day in a polar orbit. It will do so in a fixed plane in space while the earth is rotating beneath it, and its sensors will thus “see” almost every point on Earth twice per day. This will enable the satellite to provide a TREASURE TROVE of information, especially about atmospheric temperatures.”

            Now we know you true believers prefer the ground and ocean instrumental record that goes back to 1850 and is partially derived from ancient steamship intake valve records, ancient tidal guages,ice cores, balloons, ocean buoys, tree rings, and lots of manual “infilling”, but the times they are a changin’ Mikey!

            Lol

          • Mike Richardson

            What an amazing feat of projection. You deliberately fixate on one less accurate means of measurement that allows you to minimize warming, while ignoring nearly every other bit of data and the conclusions of the overwhelming majority of scientists in the field, and you say I’m cherry-picking? 😂 Wow. I hope you don’t honestly think anyone buys that.

          • OWilson

            I’m not selling anything to anybody, Mikey.

            What people believe, or not believe is their own business, and I’m ok with that!

            As I always say, no mi problemo!

            Have a nice day!

          • Robert

            Well said! And “..omission is deliberate and a conscious effort at misrepresenting the actual science…” pretty much sums up what a study of the history of the denialists’ methods says.

          • OWilson

            Just for the record.

            Who mentioned the Deccan Traps?

            Europe was separating from America 60 million years ago and the Atlantian Rift was opening. Lots of volcanism around that time! :)

            ” researchers are suggesting that the impact spawned an unimaginably large earthquake, which in turn triggered volcanic eruptions along tens of thousands of miles of Earth’s mid-oceanic ridges. These undersea mountains are formed by plate tectonics, and they wrap around the planet like seams on a baseball. If all these volcanoes went off at once, they would pump vast quantities of gasses into the ocean, worsening the die-off.

            The geologists behind the theory are Joseph Byrnes of the University of Minnesota and Leif Karlstrom of the University of Oregon. They looked at satellite measurements of mass along the mid-ocean ridge in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Then they used underwater magnetic measurements pinpoint when the ridges formed. The results suggest large-scale seafloor eruptions happened within one million years of the asteroid impact”.

            – Science Advances

          • Mike Richardson

            Just for the record.

            Who first mentioned asteroid impacts and extinction events, neither of which are discussed in the article above? You, of course.

            A reasonable person could infer this a segue to a discussion of the Chicxulub impact and the Deccan traps eruptions which occurred prior, and are implicated in hastening the end of the dinosaurs. You seem to have confirmed this with your post above, but then you refer to post-impact eruptions following the impact, instead of the more famous Deccan traps.

            Notably, the article above discusses volcanic eruptions approximately 10 million years after Chicxulub, and does not mention any kind of mass extinction in association with the Scottish volcanoes. Just to clarify the record. :)

          • Jake Diamond

            I believe Mr. Wilson doesn’t care about the record… LOL… We notice he skirted all the way around the subject of does he agree that the Arctic Ocean’s perennial ice is gone and the ocean’s coral reefs are dying because of AGW.

            It is amusing to watch him squirm and dance… He’s a tap dancing AGW denier.

            https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=videos+of+tap+dancers&&view=detail&mid=369366AAE154B564A988369366AAE154B564A988&FORM=VRDGAR

          • OWilson

            Lol

            Watch out for that big hook, from the wings, that pulls dissembling dancers off the stage!

            And no. I will not follow you true believers down into the inevitable debating swamp where you always finish up!

            I already gave at the office!

          • OWilson

            What you “infer” from my posts is no mi problemo, Mikey.

            I have neither the time, nor inclination to delve into the dark recesses of the true believer mind!

            Lol

          • Mike Richardson

            You poor baby! And you’ve never insulted anyone youself, right, oh paragon of virtue? 😏

          • OWilson

            “Poor baby” fact checked on your Trump Politifact scale, gets max Guiseppos, or whatever you call it, on both counts!

            Lol

            You must obviously try harder to post on topic, if that’s your REAL intention!

            Have a nice day, Mikey. :)

          • Mike Richardson

            It’s “Pinocchios,” actually, after the puppet with the nose that grows after every lie. Just an informal rating system for dishonesty. But I do agree, that when you are fact checked, many of your statements would indeed earn a few Pinocchios. I appreciate your frank admission of this.

            And my real intention is to simply keep the discussion accurate and relevant to the topic of ancient volcanic eruptions and climate change. Someone else wanted to discuss downvotes and some appropriately negative observations of his behavior. But you apparently have at least one consistent admirer in this thread, with a curiously private profile. Hello, mjkbk!

          • OWilson

            Ah, another “inference” Mikey?

            Do tell us more!

            Lol

          • Mike Richardson

            While the image of you in drag is probably fuel for nightmares, I honestly don’t care how you present yourself in public, as that doesn’t harm anyone. I just thought I’d say hello to your new friend, to encourage them to maybe post something of their own.

            The Hill is actually more centrist or even center-right from most of the content I’ve seen, but you do earn some approval over there from dittoheads when your rants coincide with their prejudices, so don’t be so harsh on them.

            I do agree that you could probably get more approval on a science website from posting more scientifically accurate and less cherry-picked factoids with a heavy dose of political rhetoric, as I try to do. Like noting that no “asteriods” were associated with the eruptions discussed in the article, for example, or actually discussing the entirety of NOAA’s research on climate instead of just the UAH interpretations. Who’d a thunk that people might approve of that on a science blog? 😉

          • OWilson

            Once again, it looks like all the adults have left the building, Mikey!

            Don’t forget to turn out the lights! :)

    • whheydt

      Luis Alvarez looked into a connection between the Chixulub impact and the Deccan Traps eruption. The dates don’t line up. Close…in geological terms, but not close enough to be related.

      And note that those events were 10 *million* years before the eruption covered in this blog entry. So…not going to be related.

  • Kurt Stocklmeir

    Andrew Ingersoll created a lot of good theories – he said Venus may have had a run away temperature increase because of water on Venus – water got into gas around Venus and the water absorbed energy from the sun – this made the temperature increase – because the temperature increased more water went into gas around Venus – this kept going on – this is why Venus is hot – I think he had theories about why Venus does not have a lot of water at this time – use bing seach – Andrew Ingersoll – I used his theories – the earth can have a run away temperature like Venus – if a lot of dirt gets mixed up with air around the earth it will stop rain – the water in the air absorbs energy from the sun- the temperature goes up – because the temperature increases more water ends up in the air – this keeps going on – all people on the earth will die – a lot of things can cause this like a big rock from space hits land, a volcano and nuclear war – if a lot of dirt flying around space hits air around the earth all people will die – it could be true at this time a lot of dirt from space is getting mixed up with air around the earth and this is changing the weather of the earth Kurt Stocklmeir

    • Kurt Stocklmeir

      if a lot of volcanos put a lot of dirt into the air around the earth at the same time there could be a run away temperature increase – all people on the earth can die – my theories about a run away temperature increase for the earth can be used for a lot of planets – volcanos on planets like Mars and Venus can help to make a run away temperature increase and this can help to do things like most gas around Mar went into space and most water on Mar went into space – I think theories that Andrew Ingersoll made can help explain why water around Mars went into space – using bing search – Andrew Ingersoll runaway greenhouse – I am not trying to steal theories of people Kurt Stocklmeir

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Why weren’t massive North Sea petroleum and natural gas deposits subject to volcanic diagenesis?

  • Valentin Troll

    Thanks to Erik Klemetti for a great summary of my article! Val

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Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.
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