Tephra and Tephrochonology

This brief summary of tephrochronology concentrates on Iceland and NW Europe and contains a number of early references from Iceland and the beginnings of crypotephrochonological studies in the British Isles. This is not a comprehensive list of all the papers from these regions/countries. For more references can be found by searching Tephrabase and consulting Lowe (2011).

Tephra is a term used to describe all of the solid material produced from a volcano during an eruption (Thorarinsson, 1944). The fine fraction of this material can travel great differences. Tephra from the 1259 AD eruption of El Chichon, Mexico, for example, has been found in both the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps (Palais et al., 1992). Small tephra shards (2-3 µm) from the eruption of Pinatubo circled the globe several times after the 1991 eruption. The interest in the study of tephra layers has proceeded on two fronts: firstly, there is interest of volcanic impact on climate and the environment and secondly, as a chronological tool. Climatological and palaeoenvironmental research has involved studies on the possible major impact of volcanic eruptions on climate, from the possible intensification of ice ages (Ramaswamy, 1992) to localised or short-term climatic change (Baillie and Munro, 1988). The large 1991 eruption of Pinatubo, for example, produced a large eruption column that had a small, but noticeable effect on the Earth's climate (Koyaguchi and Tokuno, 1993). The use of tephra layers as a chronological tool (tephrochronology) was originally developed in Iceland (Thorainsson, 1944) and has since been applied to other volcanically active areas such as Alaska, New Zealand and Mexico. This technique allows isochronous marker horizons, formed by tephra layers, to be mapped across inter-continental scale distances. These can form a dating framework against which other dating techniques can be checked and validated.

David Lowe's (2011) paper is an excellent review of the current state of tephrochronology.

Until the 1960s, tephrochronological studies in north-west Europe were restricted to Iceland, the only country with active volcanoes in the region. This work was pioneered by Sigurður Thórarinsson, who produced several seminal works (e.g. Larsen and Thórarinsson 1977; Thórarinsson 1954, 1956, 1967, 1975, 1981a, 1981b). There are many more papers and Sigurður Thórarinsson's pioneering work, aided by Icelandic colleagues, and Guðrún Larsen in particular during the 1970s, established the unparalleled historical tephrochronological record which enables accurate and precise dating of archaeological remains and environmental change over the past 1200 years. His work has now been applied across the world and we owe him a huge debt. 2012 marked the centenary of Sigurður Thórarinsson's birth and Jökull, the Icelandic Journal of Earth Sciences published a special edition to commemorate him. Larsen and Eiriksson (2008) is an informative review of Icelandic terrestrial tephrochronological.

During the 1960s, research carried out in mainland Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands produced evidence of the presence of Icelandic tephra layers thousands of kilometres from their sources (Persson, 1971). This period also saw the development of marine sediment studies, partly associated with oil exploration, and it became apparent that these contained a long record of Icelandic volcanism (Ruddiman and Glover 1972). Developments in geochemical analysis has enabled tephra layers to be identified independently of other dating methods, e.g. radiocarbon dating. Once a tephra has been geochemically identified, it can be used as a time marker horizon across continental or inter-continental distances over a wide range of depositional environments . This has led to the discovery and identification of Icelandic tephra layers across a large area, covering the period from the Late-Glacial to the present. Discoveries have been made in Norway (Mangerud et al., 1984), the Faroes (Mangerud et al., 1986; Dugmore and Newton, 1998; Wastegard et al; 2001, 2002), Scotland (Dugmore, 1989; Dugmore et al, 1992; Dugmore et al, 1995; Langdon and Barber, 2001), Northern Ireland (Hall and Pilcher et al, 2002; Pilcher and Hall 1992; Pilcher et al., 1995, 1996), Germany (Merkt et al., 1993; van den Bogaard et al, 1994, 2002; van den Bogaard and Schmincke, 2002), Sweden (Boygle, 1998; 2004; Wastegard, 1998; Bergman et al., 2004), Russia (Wastegard et al, 2000) and Greenland ice cores (e.g. Gronvold et al., 1995).

Several papers have been published which summarize and collect details on the techniques involved in tephrochronology and the information on the tephra layers. These include Haflidason et al (2000), Turney et al (2004), Dugmore et al (2004, 2012), Hunt and Hill (1993, 2001), Lowe (2011), Hayward (2012), Pearce et al (2011).

The volcanically active areas of Iceland can be divided into 4 volcanic zones. These are the Snæfellsness Zone, the Reykjanes-Langjokull Zone, the Northern Zone and the Eastern Zone. Öræfajökull, south-east Iceland, however does not belong to any of these zones. Jakobsson (1979) defines a volcanic system as a "spatial grouping of eruption sites in a certain period of time, with particular characteristics of tectonics, petrography and geochemistry". Volcanic systems generally start off as fissure swarms (e.g. Veidivötn), producing mainly basaltic rocks. In time more evolved rocks are produced and activity often becomes concentrated in one area. A caldera, central volcano and high temperature thermal field eventually follows (e.g. Katla Volcanic System). Systems generally have a life of between 300,000 and 500,000 years, but central volcanoes may reach an age of over 2 million years. As each volcanic system is partly defined on the geochemical property of the products it has produced, this helps in identifying the source volcanoes of tephra layers found thousands of kilometres from Iceland. So far all of this work has involved major element analysis of glass shards and this is the data stored on this database. More details on volcanic system found in Iceland are available. Many volcanic systems in Iceland are covered by thick ice-caps, which have a major impact on eruptions.

The eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull (2010) and Grímsvötn (2011) reminded the world that even relatively modest eruptions can have a major impact on modern societies at some distance from the volcano. These eruptions have led to a much better understanding of the mechanisms by which tephra is transported through the atmosphere and what controls its deposition in distal locals. The work of Davies et al (2010), Stevenson et al. (2012, 2013), Swindles (2010) and Tesche et al. (2012) are well worth reading.

As well as providing important information about volcanic histories, tephrochronology can also provide invaluable data on environmental change. This can range from establishing rates of Icelandic soil erosion (e.g. Dugmore et al., 2009), the impact of the arrival of plague on farming and society in Iceland (Streeter et al., 2012) and using incomplete or non-perfect tephra sequences to inform us geomorphological processes (Dugmore and Newton, 2012)

Tephrochronology in NW Europe is not restricted to Icelandic tephras. Tephra deposits from the Laacher See eruption (c. 13,000 years BP) have been used with increasing frequency as a tephrochronological marker in the context of both environmental as well as archaeological research (e.g., Blockley et al., 2007; Blockley et al., 2008; Blockley et al., 2008; Riede, 2007; Riede, 2008; Riede and Bazely, 2009).

Central Mexico

Intense volcanic activity in the Transmexican Volcanic Belt (TMVB), which stretches across central México, has occurred since the Oligocene. Volcanic activity continues through to the present day (e.g. Popocatépetl since 1994) representing a major potential hazard. Tephra falls from eruptions over the historical period (since 1521 AD) are reported to have effected large areas, some several hundred kilometres from the source volcano, e.g. Volcán de Colima (Martin del Pozzo et al., 1995). Volcanic activity in central Mexico is associated with the subduction of the Cocos and Rivera Plates beneath the North American plate. Although the volcanic activity in central Mexico forms an arcuate distribution, it is not parallel to the subduction, especially the part of the TMVB which lies about 19° north. The reasons for this are not entirely clear.

Present day volcanic activity can be roughly devided between large stratovolcanoes and smaller scale volcanoes such as cinder cones, maars, sheild volcanoes and lava flows. From a tephrochronological point of view tephra produced from stratovolcanoes and cinder cones are the most important features. The major stratovolcanoes in central Mexico include Nevado de Colima (4,240 metres), Volcán de Colima (3,820 metres), Nevado de Toluca (4,575 metres), Iztaccihuatl (5230 metres), Popocatépetl (5,465 metres), La Malinche and Pico de Orizabo (5,610 metres). For example, Volcán de Colimat is not only the most active volcano in Mexico, but also in North America (Bretón González et al., 2002; Luhr et al., 2010). The Michoacán-Guanajuato Volcanic Field (MGVF) is dominated by extremely dense volcanic activity in the form of cinder cones and shield volcanoes, with over 900 cinder cones found in an area of 40,000 km2 (Hasenaka and Carmichael, 1985). The two youngest cinder cones are Jorullo (AD 1759-1774) and Parícutin (AD 1943-1952). The Chichinautzin monogenetic field is another area of dense monogenetic activity with about 50 cinder cones produced in the last 50,000 years.

Whilst many studies of volcanic deposits in Mexico have occurred close to the source volcano (e.g. Luhr et al., 2010), more distal lacustrine-based tephrochronological records have been established across central Mexico. These range from Basin of Mexico (Ortega and Newton, 1998), Upper Toluca Basin (Newton and Metcalfe, 1999) and several lake basins in Michoacán (Davies et al., 2004; Telford et al., 2004; Newton et al., 2005).


Baillie, M.L., and Munro, M.A.R. (1988) Irish tree rings; Santorini and volcanic dust veils. Nature, 332, 344-346.

Bennett, K.D., Boreham, S., Sharp, M.J. and Switsur, V.R. (1992) Holocene history of environment, vegetation and human settlement on Catta Ness, Lunnasting, Shetland. Journal of Ecology, 80, 241-273.

Bergman, J., Wastegard, S., Hammarlund, D., Wohlifarth, B. and Roberts, S.J. (2004) Holocene tephra horizons at Klocka Bog, west-central Sweden: aspects of reproducibility in subarctic peat deposits. Journal of Quaternary Science, 19, 241-249.

Blockley, S.P.E., Blaauw, M., Bronk Ramsey, C. and van der Plicht, H., 2007. Building and testing age models for radiocarbon dates in Lateglacial and Early Holocene sediments. Quaternary Science Reviews 26, 1915-1926.

Blockley, S.P.E., Bronk Ramsey, C., Lane, C.S. and Lotter, A.F., 2008. Improved age modelling approaches as exemplified by the revised chronology for the Central European varved lake Soppensee. Quaternary Science Reviews 27(1-2), 61-71.

Blockley, S.P.E., Bronk Ramsey, C. and Pyle, D.M., 2008. Improved age modelling and high-precision age estimates of late Quaternary tephras, for accurate palaeoclimate reconstruction. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 177(1), 251-262.

van den Bogaard, C. and Schmincke, H.U. (2002) Linking the North Atlantic to central Europe: a high-resolution Holocene tephrochronological record from northern Germany. Journal of Quaternary Science, 17, 3-20.

van den Bogaard, C., Dorfler, W., Sandgren, P. and Schmincke, H-U. (1994) Correlating the Holocene records: Icelandic Tephra found in Schleswig-Holstein (Northern Germany). Naturwissenschaften, 81, 554-556.

van den Bogaard, C., Dorfler, W., Glos, R., Nadeau, M.J., Grootes, P.M. and Erlenkeuser, H. (2002) Two tephra layers bracketing late Holocene paleoecological changes in northern Germany. Quaternary Research, 57, 314-324.

Boygle, J. (1998) A little goes a long way: discovery of a new mid-Holocene tephra in Sweden. Boreas, 27, 195-199.

Boygle, J. (2004) Towards a Holocene tephrochronology for Sweden: geochemistry and correlation with the North Atlantic tephra stratigraphy. Journal of Quaternary Science, 19, 103-109.

Davies, S.J., Metcalfe, S.E., MacKenzie, A.B., Newton, A.J., Endfield, G.H. and Farmer, J.G. (2004) Environmental changes in the Zirahuen Basin, Michoacan, Mexico, during the last 1000 years. Journal of Paleolimnology 31, 77-98

Davies, S.M., Larsen, G., Wastegård, S., Turney, C.S.M., Hall, V.A., Coyle, L., Thordarson, T. (2010) Widespread dispersal of Icelandic tephra: how does the Eyjafjoll eruption of 2010 compare to past Icelandic events?. Journal of Quaternary Science 25, 605-611.

Dugmore, A.J. (1989) Icelandic volcanic ash in Scotland. Scottish Geographical Magazine, 105(3), 168-172.

Dugmore, A.J. (1991) Tephrochronology and UK archaeology. IN: Proceedings of the Archaeological Sciences Conference 1989. (Budd P., Chapman B., Jackson C., Jonaway R., Ottaway B. Eds.), Oxbow Books: Oxford, 242-250.

Dugmore, A.J. and Newton, A.J. (2012) Isochrons and beyond: maximising the use of tephrochronology in geomorphology. Jökull 62, 39-52.

Dugmore, A.J. and Newton, A.J. (1997) Holocene tephra layers in the Faroe Islands. Frodskaparrit, 45, 141-154.

Dugmore, A.J., Larsen, G., Newton A.J. and Sugden D.E. (1992) Geochemical stability of fine-grained silicic Holocene tephras in Iceland and Scotland. Journal of Quaternary Science, 7, 173-183.

Dugmore, A.J., Larsen, G. and Newton, A.J. (1995) Seven tephra isochrones in Scotland. The Holocene, 5(3), 257-266.

Dugmore, A.J., Larsen, L. and Newton, A.J. (2004) Tephrochronology and its application to Late Quaternary Environmental Reconstruction, with Special Reference to the North Atlantic Islands. In: Tools for Constructing Chronologies (Eds Buck, C.E. and Millard, A.R.), pp 173-188, Springer-Verlag, London.

Edwards K.J., Buckland P.C., Blackford J.J., Dugmore A.J. and Sadler J.P. (1994) The impact of tephra: proximal and distal studies of Icelandic eruptions. Muncher Geographische Auhandlungen. B12, 108-126.

Gronvold, K., Oskarsson, N., Johnsen, S. J., Clausen, H. B., Hammer, C. U., Bond, G., and Bard, E. (1995). Ash layers from Iceland in the Greenland GRIP ice core correlated with oceanic and land based sediments. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 54, 238-246.

Haflidason, H., Eiriksson, J. and Kreveld, S.V. (2000) The tephrochronology of Iceland and the North Atlantic region during the Middle and Late Quaternary: a review. Journal of Quaternary Science, 15(1), 3-22.

Hall, V.A. and Pilcher, J.R. (2002) Late-Quaternary Icelandic tephras in Ireland and Great Britain: detection, characterization and usefulness. Holocene, 12, 223-230.

Hayward, C. (2012) High spatial resolution electron probe microanalysis of tephras and melt inclusions without beam-induced chemical modification. The Holocene 22, 119-125.

Hunt J. and Hill P.G. (1993) Tephra geochemistry: a discussion of some persistent analytical problems. The Holocene, 3(3), 271-278.

Hunt, J.B. and Hill, P.G. (2001) Tephrological implications of beam size-sample-size effects in electron microprobe analysis of glass shards. Journal of Quaternary Science, 16(2), 105-117.

Jakobsson S.V. (1979) Petrology of recent basalts of the Eastern Volcanic Zone, Iceland. Acta Naturalia Islandica, 26, 103 p.

Koyaguchi, T., and Tokuno, M. (1993) Origin of the giant eruption cloud of Pinatubo, June 15, 1991. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 55(1-2), 85-96.

Langdon, P.G. and Barber, K.E. (2001) New Holocene tephras and a proxy climate record from a blanket mire in northern Skye, Scotland. Journal of Quaternary Science, 16, 753-759.

Larsen, G. and Eiriksson, J. (2008) Late Quaternary terrestrial tephrochronology of Iceland - frequency of explosive eruptions, type and volume of tephra deposits. Journal of Quaternary Science 23, 109-120.

Larsen, G., and Thorarinsson, S. (1977) H4 and other acidic Hekla tephra layers. Jokull 27, 28-46.

Lowe D.J. (2011) Tephrochronology and its application: A review. Quaternary Geochronology 6, 107-153.

Luhr, JF, Navarro-Ochoa, C and Savov, IP (2010) Tephrochronology, petrology and geochemistry of Late-Holocene pyroclastic deposits from Volcan de Colima, Mexico. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 197, 1-32.

Mangerud J., Furnes H. and Johansen J. (1986) A 9,000 year old ash bed on the Faroe Islands. Quaternary Research, 26, 262-265.

Mangerud J., Lie, S.E., Furnes H., Kristiansen I.L. and Lomo L. (1984) A Younger Dryas ash bed in western Norway and its possible correlations with tephra in cores from the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic. Quaternary Research, 21, 85-104.

Merkt J., Muller H., Knabe W., Muller P. and Weiser T. (1993) The early Holocene Saksunarvatn Tephra found in lake sediments in N.W. Germany. Boreas, 22, 93-100.

Newton, A.J. and Metcalfe, S.E. (1999) Tephrochronology of the Toluca Basin, central Mexico. Quaternary Science Reviews 18, 1039-1059. Ortega-Guerrero, B. and Newton, A.J. (1998) Geochemical characterization of late Pleistocene-Holocene tephra layers from the Basin of Mexico, central Mexico. Quaternary Research 50(1), 90-106.

Newton, A.J., Dugmore, A.J. and Gittings, B.M. (2007) Tephrabase: tephrochronology and the development of a centralised European database. Journal of Quaternary Science 22, 737-743.

Newton, A.J., Gittings, B. and Stuart, N. (1997) Designing a scientific database Query Server using the World Wide Web: The example of Tephrabase. In: Inovations in GIS 4 Kemp, Z., Taylor & Francis, London,251-266.

Newton, A.J., Metcalfe, S.E., Davies, S.J., Cook, G.T., Barker, P. and Telford, J.T. (2005) Late Quaternary and Holocene volcanic record preserved in lakes of Michoacan, central Mexico.. Quaternary Science Reviews 24, 91-104.

Palais, J.M., Germani, M.S., and Zielinski, G.A. (1992) Inter-hemispheric transport of volcanic ash from a 1259 AD volcanic eruption to the Greenland and Antarctic Icesheets. Geophysical Research Letters, 19, 801-804.

Pearce N.J.R. et al (2011) Trace-element microanalysis by LA-ICP-MS: The quest for comprehensive chemical characterisation of single, sub-10 µm volcanic glass shards. Quaternary International 246(1-2), 57-81.

Persson C. (1971) Tephrochronological investigations of peat deposits/

in Scandinavia and on the Faroe Islands. Sveriges Geologiska Undersokning, 65, 3-34.

Pilcher J.R. and Hall V.A. (1992) Towards a tephrochronology for the Holocene for the north of Ireland. The Holocene, 2(3), 255-260.

Pilcher J.R., Hall V.A., and McCormac F.G. (1995) Dates of Holocene Icelandic volcanic eruptions from tephra layers in Irish peats. The Holocene, 5(1), 103-110.

Pilcher, J.R., Hall, V.A. and McCormac, F.G. (1996) An outline tephrochronology for the Holocene of the north of Ireland. Journal of Quaternary Science, 11(6), 485-494.

Ramaswamy, V. (1992) Explosive start to the last glaciation. Nature, 359, 14-14.

Riede, F., Bazely, O., Newton, A.J. and Lane C.S. (2011) A Laacher See-eruption supplement to Tephrabase: Investigating distal tephra fallout dynamics. Quaternary International 246(1-2), 134-144.

Riede, F.; (2007) Der Ausbruch des Laacher See-Vulkans vor 12.920 Jahren und urgeschichtlicher Kulturwandel am Ende des Alleröd. Eine neue Hypothese zum Ursprung der Bromme-Kultur und des Perstunien / The eruption of the Laacher See-volcano and prehistoric material culture change at the end of the Alleröd in Northern Europe. A new hypothesis for the origin of the Bromme and Perstunian cultures. Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte, 16 pp. 25-54.

Riede, F. (2008) The Laacher See-eruption (12,920 BP) and material culture change at the end of the Allerød in Northern Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(3), 591-599.

Riede, F. and Bazely, O. (2009) Testing the 'Laacher See hypothesis': a health hazard perspective. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(3), 675-683.

Stevenson JA, Loughlin SC, Font A, Fuller GW, MacLeod A, Oliver IW, Jackson B, Horwell CJ, Thordarson T, Dawson I (2013) UK monitoring and deposition of tephra from the May 2011 eruption of Grímsvötn, Iceland. Journal of Applied Volcanology 2(3).

Stevenson, JA, Loughlin, S, Rae, C, Thordarson, T, Milodowski, AE, Gilbert, JS, Harangi, S, Lukacs, R, Hojgaard, B, Arting, U, Pyne-O'Donnell, S, MacLeod, A, Whitney, B and Cassidy, M (2012) Distal deposition of tephra from the Eyjafjallajökull 2010 summit eruption. Journal of Geophysical Research-Solid Earth 117, B00C10.

Streeter, R, Dugmore, AJ and Vesteinsson, O (2012) Plague and landscape resilience in premodern Iceland. PNAS 109, 3664-3669.

Streeter, R. and Dugmore, A.J. (2013) Anticipating land surface change. PNAS 110, 5779-5784.

Streeter, R.T. and Dugmore, A.J. (2013) Reconstructing late-Holocene environmental change in Iceland using high-resolution tephrochronology. Holocene 23, 197-207.

Swindles, GT, Lawson, IT, Savov, IP, Connor, CB and Plunkett, G (2011) A 7000 yr perspective on volcanic ash clouds affecting northern Europe. Geology 39, 887-890.

Tesche et al (2012) Volcanic ash over Scandinavia originating from the Grimsvotn eruptions in May 2011. Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres 117, D09201.

Telford, J.T., Barker, P., Metcalfe, S.E. and Newton, A.J. (2004) Lacustrine responses to tephra deposition: examples from Mexico. Quaternary Science Reviews 23, 2337-2353.

Thorarinsson, S. (1944) Tefrokronoliska studier pa Island. (Tephrochronological studies in Iceland). Geografiska Annaler 26, 1-217

Thorarinsson, S. (1954) The tephra fall from Hekla on March 29 1947. The eruption of Hekla 1947-1948 II/3, 1-68.

Thorarinsson, S. (1956) On the variations of Svinafellsjokull, Skaftafellsjokull and Kviarjokull in Oraefi. Jokull 6, 1-15.

Thorarinsson, S. (1967) The eruption of Hekla in historical times. A tephrochronological study. The eruption of Hekla 1947-1948 I, 1-183.

Thorarinsson, S. (1975) Katla og annáll Kotlugosa. Arbok Ferdafelags Islands 124-149.

Thorarinsson, S. (1981a) Greetings From Iceland - ash-falls and volcanic aerosols in Scandinavia. Geografiska Annaler Series A 63(3-4), 109-110.

Thorarinsson, S. (1981b) The application of tephrochronology in Iceland In:. Tephra Studies Self S, Sparks RSJ Ed., D. Reidal, Dordrecht,109-134.

Turney, C.S.M., Lowe, J.J., Davies, S.M., Hall, V., Lowe, D.J., Wastegard, S., Hoek, W.Z. and Alloway, B. (2004) Tephrochronology of Last Termination Sequences in Europe: a protocol for improved analytical precision and robust correlation procedures (a joint SCOTAV-INTIMATE proposal). Journal of Quaternary Science, 19, 111-120.

Wastegård, S., Björck, S., Possnert, G. and Wohlfarth, B. (1998) Evidence of the occurance of Vedde Ash in Sweden: radiocarbon age estimates. Journal of Quaternary Science, 13(3), 271-274.

Wastegård, S., Wohlfarth, B., Subetto, D.A. and Sapelko, T.V. (2000) Extending the known distribution of the Younger Dryas Vedde Ash into northwestern Russia. Journal of Quaternary Science, 15(6): 581-586.

Wastegard, S., Bjorck, S., Grauert, M. and Hannon, G.E. (2001) The Mjauvotn tephra and other Holocene tephra horizons from the Faroe Islands: a link between the Icelandic source region, the Nordic Seas, and the European continent. The Holocene, 11(1), 101-109.

Wastegard, S. (2002) Early to middle Holocene silicic tephra horizons from the Katla volcanic system, Iceland: new results from the Faroe Islands. Journal of Quaternary Science, 17, 723-730.