Volcanic Winter

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:18 PM GMT on April 24, 2009

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"The sun was dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months; each day it shone for about four hours; and still this light was only a feeble shadow; the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes." As this Michael the Syrian quote regarding the weather of 536 A.D. demonstrates, a climate catastrophe that blots out the sun can really spoil your day. Procopius of Caesarea remarked: "During this year [536 A.D.] a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness. and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear." Many documents from 535 - 536 A.D.--the time of King Arthur in Britain--speak of the terrible "dry fog" or cloud of dust that obscured the sun, causing widespread crop failures in Europe, and summer frosts, drought, and famine in China. Tree ring studies in Europe confirm several years of very poor growth around that time, and ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica show highly elevated levels of atmospheric sulfuric acid dust existed.

Though some scientists believe the climate calamity of 535-536 A.D. was due to a comet or asteroid hitting the Earth, it is widely thought that the event was probably caused by the most massive volcanic eruption of the past 1500 years. This eruption threw so much sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas into the stratosphere that a "Volcanic Winter" resulted. Sulfur dioxide reacts with water to form sulfuric acid droplets (aerosol particles), which are highly reflective and reduce the amount of incoming sunlight. The potential eruption that led to the 535 - 536 A.D. climate calamity would have likely been a magnitude 7 event on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI)--a "super colossal" eruption that one can expect to occur only once every 1000 years. The Volcanic Explosivity Index is a logarithmic scale like the Richter scale used to rate earthquakes, so a magnitude 7 eruption would eject ten times more material than the two largest eruptions of the past century--the magnitude 6 eruptions of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines (1991) and Novarupta in Alaska (1912).


Figure 1. An 18 km-high volcanic plume from one of a series of explosive eruptions of Mount Pinatubo beginning on 12 June 1991, viewed from Clark Air Base (about 20 km east of the volcano). Three days later, the most powerful eruption produced a plume that rose nearly 40 km, penetrating well into the stratosphere. Pinatubo's sulfur emissions cooled the Earth by about 1°F (0.5°C) for 1 - 2 years. (Photograph by David H. Harlow, USGS.)

Super-colossal eruptions
There has been only one other magnitude 7 "super-colossal" eruption in the past 1500 years--the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815. The sulfur pumped by this eruption into the stratosphere dimmed sunlight so extensively that global temperatures fell by about 2°F (1°C) for 1 - 2 years afterward. This triggered the famed Year Without a Summer in 1816. Killing frosts and snow storms in May and June 1816 in Eastern Canada and New England caused widespread crop failures, and lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania in July and August. The Tambora eruption was about 40% smaller than the 535 - 536 A.D. event, as measured by the number of sulfur aerosol particles deposited in Greenland ice cores.

In an article published in 2008 in the American Geophysical Union journal EOS, Dr. Ken Verosub of the University of California, Davis Department of Geology estimated that future eruptions capable of causing "Volcanic Winter" effects severe enough to depress global temperatures by 2°F (1°C) and trigger widespread crop failures for 1 - 2 years afterwards should occur about once every 200 - 300 years. Even a magnitude 6 eruption, such as the 1600 eruption of the Peruvian volcano Huaynaputina, can cause climatic change capable of killing millions of people. The Huaynaputina eruption is blamed for the Russian famine of 1601-1603, which killed over half a million people and led to the overthrow of Tsar Boris Godunov. Thankfully, the climatic impacts of all of these historic magnitude 6 and 7 eruptions have been relatively short-lived. After about two years, the sulfuric acid aerosol particles have settled out of the stratosphere, returning the climate to its former state.

Mega-colossal eruptions
Even more extreme eruptions have occurred in Earth's past--eruptions ten times more powerful than the Tambora eruption, earning a ranking of 8 out of 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). These "mega-colossal" eruptions occur only about once every 10,000 years, but have much longer-lasting climatic effects and thus are a more significant threat to human civilization. According to the Toba Catastrophe Theory, a mega-colossal eruption at Toba Caldera, Sumatra, about 74,000 years ago, was 3500 times greater than the Tambora eruption. According to model simulations, an eruption this large can pump so much sulfur dioxide gas into the stratosphere that the atmosphere does not have the capacity to oxidize all the SO2 to sulfuric acid aerosol. The atmosphere oxidizes as much SO2 as it can, leaving a huge reservoir of SO2 in the stratosphere. This SO2 gradually reacts to form sulfuric acid as the OH radicals needed for this reaction are gradually produced. The result is a much longer-lasting climate effect than the 1 - 2 years that the magnitude 6 and 7 events of 535, 1600, 1815, and 1991 lasted. A magnitude 8 eruption like the Toba event can cool the globe for 6 - 10 years (Figure 3), which may be long enough to trigger an ice age--if the climate is already on the verge of tipping into an ice age. Rampino and Self (1992) argued that the sulfur aerosol veil from Toba was thick and long-lasting enough to cool the globe by 3 - 5°C (5 - 9°F), pushing the climate--which was already cooling and perhaps headed towards an ice age--into a full-scale ice age. They suggested that the response of Canada to the volcano played a particularly important role, with their model predicting a 12°C (22°F) reduction in summer temperatures in Canada. This would have favored the growth of the Laurentide ice sheet, increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of the Earth, reflecting more sunlight and reducing temperatures further. The controversial Toba Catastrophe Theory asserts that the resulting sudden climate change reduced the Earth's population of humans to 1,000 - 10,000 breeding pairs. More recent research has shed considerable doubt on the idea that the Toba eruption pushed the climate into an ice age, though. Oppenheimer (2002) found evidence supporting only a 2°F (1.1°C) cooling of the globe, for the 1000 years after the Toba eruption. Zielinski et al. (1996) argued that the Toba eruption did not trigger a major ice age--the eruption merely pushed the globe into a cool period that lasted 200 years. Interestingly, a previous super-eruption of Toba, 788,000 years ago, coincided with a transition from an ice age to a warm period.


Figure 2. The 100x30 square kilometer Toba Caldera is situated in north-central Sumatra around 200 km north of the Equator. It is comprised of four overlapping calderas aligned with the Sumatran volcanic chain. Repeated volcanic cataclysms culminated in the stupendous expulsion of the Younger Toba Tuff around 74,000 years ago. The lake area is 100 square kilometers. Samosir Island formed as a result of subsequent uplift above the evacuated magma reservoir. Such resurgent domes are typically seen as the concluding phase of a large eruption. Landsat Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) browse images for path/row 128/58 (6 September 1999) and 129/58 (21 January 2001) from http://landsat7.usgs.gov/. Copyright USGS. Image source: Oppenheimer, C., 2002, "Limited global change due to the largest known Quaternary eruption, Toba 74 kyr BP?"Quaternary Science Reviews, 21, Issues 14-15, August 2002, Pages 1593-1609.


Figure 3. Total mass of sulfur dioxide and sulfate aerosol in the stratosphere (heavy solid and dotted lines, respectively) modeled for a 6 petagram stratospheric injection of SO2. Observed SO2 and aerosol mass for the 1991 Pinatubo eruption are shown for comparison. The much larger amount of SO2 in the Toba simulation soaks up all available oxidants in the stratosphere leading to a much longer lifetime of SO2 and, in turn, prolonging the manufacture of sulfate aerosol. Data from Read et al. (1993) and Bekki et al. (1996). Image source: Oppenheimer, C., 2002, "Limited global change due to the largest known Quaternary eruption, Toba 74 kyr BP?"Quaternary Science Reviews, 21, Issues 14-15, August 2002, Pages 1593-1609.

When can we expect the next mega-colossal eruption?
Given the observed frequency of one mega-colossal magnitude 8 volcanic eruption every 1.4 million years, the odds of another hitting in the next 100 years is about .014%, according to Mason et al., 2004. This works out to a 1% chance over the next 7200 years. Rampino (2002) puts the average frequency of such eruptions at once every 50,000 years--about double the frequency with which 1-km diameter comets or asteroids capable of causing a similar climatic effect hit the Earth. A likely location for the next mega-colossal eruption would be at the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming, which has had magnitude 7 or 8 eruptions as often as every 650,000 years. The last mega-colossal eruption there was about 640,000 years ago. But don't worry, the seismic activity under Yellowstone Lake earlier this year has died down, and the uplift of the ground over the Yellowstone caldera that was as large as 7 cm/yr (2.7 inches/yr) between 2004 - 2006 has now fallen to 4 cm/yr, according to the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. The USGS states that "the Yellowstone volcanic system shows no signs that it is headed toward such an eruption. The probability of a large caldera-forming eruption within the next few thousand years is exceedingly low".

What would happen if a magnitude 8 mega-colossal eruption were to occur today?
If a mega-colossal eruption were to occur today, it would probably not be able to push Earth into an ice age, according to a modeling study done by Jones et al. (2005). They found that an eruption like Toba would cool the Earth by about 17°F (9.4°C) after the first year (Figure 3), and the temperature would gradually recover to 3°F (1.8°C) below normal ten years after the eruption. They found that the eruption would reduce rainfall by 50% globally for the first two years, and up to 90% over the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and central Africa. This would obviously be very bad for human civilization, with the cold and lack of sunshine causing widespread crop failures and starvation of millions of people. Furthermore, the eruption would lead to a partial loss of Earth's protective ozone layer, allowing highly damaging levels of ultraviolet light to penetrate to the surface.

Not even a mega-colossal eruption of this magnitude would stop global warming, though. The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would not be affected by the volcanic eruption, and warming would resume where it left off once the stratospheric dust settled out in a decade. With civilization crippled by the disaster, greenhouse gas emissions would be substantially reduced, though (small solace!) If we really want to say goodbye to civilization, a repeat of the only magnitude 9 eruption in recorded history should do the trick--the magnitude 9.2 La Garita, Colorado blast of 27.8 million years ago (Mason et al., 2004).


Figure 4. Annual near-surface temperature anomalies for the year following a mega-colossal volcanic eruption like the Toba eruption of 74,000 years ago, if it were to occur today. Most land areas cool by 22°F (12°C) compared to average. Some areas, like Africa, cool by 29°F (16°C). Image credit: Jones, G.S., et al., 2005, "An AOGCM simulation of the climate response to a volcanic super-eruption", Climate Dynamics, 25, Numbers 7-8, pp 725-738, December, 2005.

What would happen if a magnitude 7 super-colossal eruption were to occur today?
An eruption today like the magnitude 7 events of 535 A.D. or 1815 would cause cause wide-spread crop failures for 1 - 2 years after the eruption. With food supplies in the world already stretched thin by rising population, decreased water availability, and conversion of cropland to grow biofuels, a major volcanic eruption would probably create widespread famine, threatening the lives of millions of people. Wars over scarce resources might result. However, society's vulnerability to major volcanic eruptions is less than it was, since the globe has warmed significantly in the past 200 years. The famines from the eruptions of 1600 and 1815 both occurred during the Little Ice Age, when global temperatures were about 1.4°F (0.8°C) cooler than today. Crop failures would not be as wide-spread with today's global temperatures, if a suer-colossal eruption were to occur. Fifty years from now, when global temperatures are expected to be at least 1°C warmer, a magnitude 7 eruption should only be able to cool the climate down to year 2009 levels.

Volcanoes also warm the climate
While volcanoes cool the climate on time scales of 1 - 2 years, they act to warm the climate over longer time scales, since they are an important source of natural CO2 to the atmosphere. Volcanoes add 0.1 - 0.3 gigatons (Gt) of carbon to the atmosphere each year, which is about 1 - 3% of what human carbon emissions to the atmosphere were in 2007, according to the Global Carbon Project. In fact, volcanoes are largely responsible for the natural CO2 in the atmosphere, and helped make life possible on Earth. Why, then, haven't CO2 levels continuously risen over geologic time, turning Earth into a steamy hothouse? In fact, CO2 levels have fallen considerably since the time of the dinosaurs--how can this be? Well, volcano-emitted CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by chemical weathering. This occurs when rain and snow fall on rocks containing silicates. The moisture and silicates react with CO2, pulling it out of the air. The carbon removed from the air is then washed into the sea, where it ends up in ocean sediments that gradually harden into rock. Rates of chemical weathering on Earth have accelerated since the time of the dinosaurs, largely due to the recent uplift of the Himalaya Mountains and Tibetan Plateau. These highlands undergo a tremendous amount of weathering, thanks to their lofty heights and the rains of the Asian Monsoon that they capture. Unfortunately, chemical weathering cannot help us with our current high levels of greenhouse gases, since chemical weathering takes thousands of years to remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. It takes about 100,000 years for silicate weathering to remove 63% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Thus, climate models predict that chemical weathering will solve our greenhouse gas problem in about 100,000 - 200,000 years.

For further information
PBS TV special on the 535-536 A.D. disaster.
Newspaper articles on the 535-536 A.D. disaster.
Volcanic winter article from wikipedia.
Realclimate.org has a nice article that goes into the volcano-climate connection in greater detail.

References
Bekki, S., J.A. Pyle, W. Zhong, R. Toumi, J.D. Haigh and D.M. Pyle, 1996, "The role of microphysical and chemical processes in prolonging the climate forcing of the Toba eruption", Geophysical Research Letters 23 (1996), pp. 2669-2672.

Jones, G.S., et al., 2005, "An AOGCM simulation of the climate response to a volcanic super-eruption", Climate Dynamics, 25, Numbers 7-8, pp 725-738, December, 2005.

Rampino, M.R., and S. Self, 1993, "Climate-volcanism feedback and the Toba eruption of 74,000 years ago", Quaternary Research 40 (1993), pp. 269-280.

Mason, B.G., D.M. Pyle, and C. Oppenheimer, 2004, "The size and frequency of the largest observed explosive eruptions on Earth", Bulletin of Volcanology" 66, Number 8, December 2004, pp 735-748.

Oppenheimer, C., 2002, "Limited global change due to the largest known Quaternary eruption, Toba 74 kyr BP?"Quaternary Science Reviews, 21, Issues 14-15, August 2002, Pages 1593-1609.

Rampino, M.R., 2002, "Supereruptions as a Threat to Civilizations on Earth-like Planets", Icarus, 156, Issue 2, April 2002, Pages 562-569.

Read, W.G., L. Froidevaux and J.W. Waters, 1993, "Microwave Limb Sounder measurements of stratospheric SO2 from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption", Geophysical Research Letters 20 (1993), pp. 1299-1302.

Verosub, K.L., and J. Lippman, 2008, "Global Impacts of the 1600 Eruption of Peru's Huaynaputina Volcano", EOS 89, 15, 8 April 2008, pp 141-142.

Zielinski, G.A. et al., 1996, "Potential Atmospheric Impact of the Toba Mega-Eruption 71,000 Years Ago", Geophysical Research Letters, 23, 8, pp. 837-840, 1996.

Portlight moves to provide relief for South Carolina wildfires
South Carolina's biggest wildfire in more than three decades --a blaze four miles wide--destroyed dozens of homes near Myrtle Beach yesterday. Portlight Strategies, Inc. is preparing to respond to this disaster, focusing on providing drinks and sanitary products to firefighters, particularly to rural volunteer fire departments and other first responders which do not have the same resources as some of the larger paid departments. To help out, visit the Portlight South Carolina fire relief web page. Thanks!

Jeff Masters

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I am enjoying the GFS so far this year. I do not think the blob it shows will materialize into anything threatening.
Member Since: April 26, 2009 Posts: 3 Comments: 3667
Mel here..."the chick from GA"...

I haven't even been here for hours except to check in and say hello. I am not going to keep this going with JFV (who is supposed to be banned and has sent me a few emails already that are full of expletives and threats).

Just ignore...admin has already been informed. Don't quote, don't repost...



Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Its 10 days out.
5 day forecasts have a significant amount of errors and are 5x worse at 10 days out.
The system may not even develop just for that reason but I am very impressed by the consistantcy of the GFS.
Member Since: September 7, 2008 Posts: 17 Comments: 1604
The 12Z JMA, another model only goes out 192 hrs and its resolution is poor showing only a big blob of moisture moving north from the ITCZ over the W Caribbean.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1129. Ossqss
Quoting SevereHurricane:


Don't worry about him,
Just put him on ignore,
Same JFV, Different Year...


My appologies for the clog in the blog. Active content is required to look at backweb info. Knowledge is king, as they say. Sorry it will no longer occur. Be well all and I'm gone.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting SevereHurricane:



hmmm,
Thats a really good question!
I suppose its possible.
I will try to find out for you...


I know typically we see storms move away from the equator and in the northern hemisphere we tend to see them move north away from the ITCZ. TC27 looks to have formed slightly north of the ITCZ but south of the equator. The early movements are circular making me think it is trying to move north away from the ITCZ, but then getting pushed south by the equator. Link
Member Since: September 3, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 1519
Even though the GFS has maintained remarkable consistency in regards to developing a tropical system in the Western Caribbean in about ten days or so, I'm still not buying it since this scenario still remains so far out in the future and has received no model support thus far. I would advise all here not to get excited or concerned about what the GFS has been showing until it comes within a five day time frame and we see other computer model support. Just keep an eye on the model for now.
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Quoting PresidentialElection:



Link

Thank You so much you are so nice!!!!!!
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The different thing about the latest run is that it finally starts developing the TS earlier in the forecast period instead of delaying it.
Member Since: September 7, 2008 Posts: 17 Comments: 1604
Quoting PresidentialElection:


Thanks for the update, 456! It's reluctant, isn't it? Now, it has entered the 10 day forecast, in case you haven't noticed that already, Weather. It warrents some indirect watching to say the very least.


I've noted it. If you look closely the intiator is a low pressure area over the SW Caribbean at 168 hrs, or Sunday. While an interesting time frame, I'm still skeptical.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
Quoting PresidentialElection:
Over Cuba it goes, yet again.

Can you please post the link to the model showing storm 27 I would really appreciate it.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Ossqss:


I have never been so Insulated in my whole life and thanks for the courtesy. :) The actual Weather involved is whether you have anyone that can see your posts from hear on out. I believe your intent is good, but your delivery is poor.


Don't worry about him,
Just put him on ignore,
Same JFV, Different Year...
Member Since: September 7, 2008 Posts: 17 Comments: 1604
Quoting PresidentialElection:


Hey, are you Mel? The chick from Georgia, which has three kids?

Quoting CatastrophicDL:


Question about TC27 and it may be kind of dumb since I haven't learned much about southern hemisphere storms, but can the shifting ITCZ in that area be impacting or causing the northward movement?


hmmm,
Thats a really good question!
I suppose its possible.
I will try to find out for you...
Member Since: September 7, 2008 Posts: 17 Comments: 1604
1114. Ossqss
Quoting PresidentialElection:


Madame, you're contradictions towards me that way, are down right vendictive; therefore, I am more then done with you as well. Farewell forever!!! Now back to the WEATHER


I have never been so Insulated in my whole life and thanks for the courtesy. :) The actual Weather involved is whether you have anyone that can see your posts from hear on out. I believe your intent is good, but your delivery is poor.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Weather456:
The GFS continues to develop the tropical cyclone and the track has change again coinciding with the intial runs.

Can you please provide the link .
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
The GFS continues to develop the tropical cyclone and the track has change again coinciding with the intial runs.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1108. cdo
Just put him on ignore, the blog reads much better.
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Quoting SevereHurricane:


I agree!
You really don't see those kind of TC's everyday...


Question about TC27 and it may be kind of dumb since I haven't learned much about southern hemisphere storms, but can the shifting ITCZ in that area be impacting or causing the northward movement?
Member Since: September 3, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 1519
1106. Ossqss
Quoting PresidentialElection:


Hey, are you Mel? The chick from Georgia, which has three kids?


Dear Sir, I will not enter into a battle of wits with you for I am unarmed or at least have my carry and conceal permit for same.

Frankly, you had many opportunities provided to clear your air and head and now this? I tried to help you. I would ask that you do not pursue those who attempt to help in an antagonistic way. It would not be a healthy thing. If I had any feelings you would have hurt them severely my friend.
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PE is my hero ;0)
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1104. cdo
Thanks everyone, it finally worked!!!!!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
CDO,

You should be able to. Click 'ignore user' corresponding to the handle you wish to ignore - that should take you to the page listing name(s). Make sure to hit the 'update ignore list'. Et voila, should work.

'Course, that might all have been said before...
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1099. cdo
Too bad I cannot block PE...so so so so annoying....not informative at all...just annoying....
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1098. Ossqss
1089, you can set your preferences accordingly. I had the same issue for longer than I want to admit. :)
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Quoting PresidentialElection:


Gotcha, we wait then my friend! Any early predictions in regards to what it might reveal in reference to our ghost storm, 456?


No, not as yet.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1095. Ossqss
1080-

Look towards Tuesday for discovery of fact or sooner. They will know if it was engineered or natural. If the threat level goes to 4 from WHO, take precautions,that means something. Remember, there is an incubation period of up to 14 days in most instances and we should certainly see more locations affected by then. Hence, the activities you are seeing world wide. The good news is, those in the US that were struck with this, had mild reactions with medical help and did not perish. They do not have the same ability to treat things like this in Mexico. The potential bad news is, if it was manufactured, there are surely more variants.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
all4hurricanes, that really is quite amazing--I am surprised the Coriolis effect gives it spin! But obviously it does....


I agree!
You really don't see those kind of TC's everyday...
Member Since: September 7, 2008 Posts: 17 Comments: 1604
Prez, is everything okay with you? I've been noticing the last couple of days that you aren't as grammatically correct as you normally are and you seem to have quit proofreading your posts. JK :o)
Member Since: September 3, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 1519
Okay why does this blog use GMT but the WU Interactive Tornado Map uses EDT? All this makes it more difficult for me to remember I'm on MDT! :o)
Member Since: September 3, 2007 Posts: 3 Comments: 1519
Quoting PresidentialElection:



You're really in a fighting provoked mood this evening, aren't you?


Umm what are you talking about?
I was refering to the 18z GFS!
Im insulted...
Member Since: September 7, 2008 Posts: 17 Comments: 1604
Quoting PresidentialElection:
Is the 18z GFS model run available as of yet, folks?


Its currently running.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
It begins....
Member Since: September 7, 2008 Posts: 17 Comments: 1604

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.