“Sooner or later we will experience a large volcanic eruption, and perhaps a cluster of them, that will act to exacerbate drought in sensitive parts of the world.”
Source: Yale News
A closer look at the evolving thought experiment, World R U I N, in light of Mount Agung’s eruption continues…
After examining how volcanoes alter the climate, and how that might be modelled in a simulation designed to play out the end of the human era and/or the restoration of the planet, it’s time to slide the time bar back progressively further and see how these violent disturbances to the climate can disrupt – or destroy – civilisations.
Mount Agung, the Balinese volcano, continues to defiantly spew ash and steam into the atmosphere.
As of yet, none of these have been powerful enough to reach the stratosphere – which is where it needs to reach to have a cooling effect on the planet.
The jet of pink steam shown above went about two-and-a-half kilometres into the sky. Mount Agung is going to have to do better than that if it wants to achieve something more than messing up westerner’s holiday plans.
It still could. Or it could quiet again tomorrow (unlikely given its continued seismic activity).
We can’t predict future, but we can model it. Such models are built on an evolving understanding of past events. Last time we went back a few decades to see the effects of the best recorded, most understood climate disrupting volcano, Mount Pinatubo.
This time we’re going to skip backwards by centuries – and thousands of years – to see how the cooling effect of volcanoes has disrupted – and played a part in the collapse of – civilisations by causing epidemics, famines and violent unrest.
The Year Without A Summer
The most well-known impact of a volcanic eruption is the Year Without A Summer (1815-1816). This gloomy period gave us the invention of science-fiction, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, and probably also bicycles.
It was the result of the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. Mount Tambora’s explosion in 1815 led it to spew ash and sulphur for four months. The total sulphur dioxide (SO2) released is estimated at 10-120 million tonnes. The consequences of which were “surface temperature anomalies during the summer of 1816, 1817, and 1818… −0.51 °C, −0.44 °C and −0.29 °C, respectively.”
The bicycle was likely invented because falling temperatures led to failing crops led to less oats for horses to eat leading to a need to get around without them.
Climate chaos in this case was the mother of invention.
One problem got a creative solution, but there were so many more that went unanswered. Those same failing crops led to famines, mass migrations, the spread of epidemics, food riots and general unrest.
A Nature article on the subject puts it simply:
“The agricultural disaster following the Tambora eruption was described as ‘the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world.‘”
It points out that this disaster was unevenly distributed. While Tambora disrupted the lives of people from North America to Europe to the South Asia, Russian crops were little affected, and that empire was able to send aid in food and gold to Western Europe.
The cause of the Year Without A Summer wasn’t even known until the early 20th Century, when the sciences had developed enough to decipher the events of the past. For the people of the time it must’ve seemed like ‘the gods were angry with them.’
As our models improve, the past is constantly revisited, revised and re-interrupted. It’s like a time portal whose resolution improves with each new finding and cross-disciplinary collaboration.
The people of ancient Egypt must’ve really felt like they’d angered the gods when the river they built their civilisation around started to fail them. Because it’s only now we know what happened to them.
Volcanoes and the end of ancient Egypt
“Ancient Egyptians depended almost exclusively on Nile summer flooding brought by the summer monsoon in east Africa to grow their crops. In years influenced by volcanic eruptions, Nile flooding was generally diminished, leading to social stress that could trigger unrest and have other political and economic consequences.”
A team of researchers have done some pretty amazing detective work to solve the case of the collapse of Ptolemaic Egypt, which ended in 30 B.C. Spoiler: volcanoes did it.
Using an interdisciplinary approach that combined evidence from climate modelling of large 20th-century eruptions, annual measurements of Nile summer flood heights from the Islamic Nilometer — the longest-known human record of environmental variability — between 622 and 1902, as well as descriptions of Nile flood quality in ancient papyri and inscriptions from the Ptolemaic era, the authors show how large volcanic eruptions impacted on Nile river flow, reducing the height of the agriculturally-critical summer flood.
If a volcano – or series of volcanoes – on the other side of the world making the rain stop and the river from flooding doesn’t seem like an act of the gods, what would? (Acceptable answers include: asteroids and the solar cycle.)
The Roman Empire, more resilient at the time and not reliant on the Nile, would absorb the territory. Egypt was history.
To recap, we should be careful what we wish for.
The cooling effects of volcanic eruptions aren’t a zero cost solution provided by the Earth that offsets the pollution caused by our Industrial Civilisation – especially when, as we saw in the previous post, they buy us a temporary reprieve at best.
In the past they have meant not just climate instability, but civilisational disruption, with disastrous flow-on effects like epidemics, famine… violent unrest, civil war and worse… exactly the kinds of things we’re trying to avoid in the world to come.
World R U I N: Climate Wars edition
As we begin to shift our focus from the past to the future we pause once more at the present.
It’s been the hubris of every civilisation to think that it won’t become victim to the problems that befell its predecessors.
Right now the techno-optimists at WIRED (writing about the thankfully dormant supervolcano at Yellowstone) aren’t too worried that the world-as-they-know-it will end in death-by-volcano:
Even with our more interconnected planet and a larger population, you need to remember that really, as a society, we are also more resilient. We can absorb disasters as materials and foods can be transported easily, medicine exists to stop the disease that can follow an eruption and technology allows us to better understand if an eruption is going to occur—thus, we can prepare. Society can survive catastrophes, but media wants us to think otherwise.
What this quick historical survey teaches us is that often survival has been a matter of fortune. Russia in the 19th Century sat just outside the area effected by Mount Tambora, but was part of the same wider European civilisation as its neighbours to the West. The Roman Empire didn’t yet rely on the East African monsoons – that would come later, when North Africa became its breadbasket – so the Ptolemaic Kingdom’s collapse let them slide right in and take over. (Update: did the Indus Valley and Vedic civs also collapse due to volcanic activity effecting the monsoons the relied upon? Only the second part has been deciphered so far.)
Whatever happens, sure… some will survive, and others will no doubt thrive in the aftermath. It might look safe right now inside the first world megacities where every need can be fulfilled by an app… that is, until the day comes when the smart phones no longer work or the sky is so filled with ash that drones can’t fly or the sun becomes too dim to charge the solar panels.
What thinking about the consequences of an unexpected volcanic eruption on the world’s climate – and the human beings so dependant upon that – helps dramatise is the fate of the planet – and our specie’s place within it – when it’s 2°C warmer.
Take away the volcanoes and we’re still in for a world of hurt.
A world that sounds rather similar to the past eras we’ve visited – of failing crops, starving people, rampant disease and war.
As climate change intensifies, bringing not just desertification but rising sea levels in low-lying coastal areas and increasingly devastating heat waves in regions that are already hot, ever more parts of the planet will be rendered less habitable, pushing millions of people into desperate flight.
While the strongest and wealthiest governments, especially in more temperate regions, will be better able to cope with these stresses, expect to see the number of failed states grow dramatically, leading to violence and open warfare over what food, arable land, and shelter remains. In other words, imagine significant parts of the planet in the kind of state that Libya, Syria, and Yemen are in today. Some people will stay and fight to survive; others will migrate, almost assuredly encountering a far more violent version of the hostility we already see toward immigrants and refugees in the lands they head for. The result, inevitably, will be a global epidemic of resource civil wars and resource violence of every sort.
Source: The Nation
That is the world to be modelled in a simulation such as World R U I N.
A planet on fire.
That is the future to be averted.
Maybe we can only do so by first watching it play out to the end on a screen in front of us. To witness the dominoes fall across time. Little icons of nations ablaze. Of peoples fleeing lands – and seas – that will no longer sustain them… and dying en masse of war, famine or disease.
We need to find our own creative solutions to the problems of our age. To increase our resilience, and maximise the survivability of not just the humans, but all species on this planet who are tied together in an intricate ecological web.
It’s only going to get worse over time unless something changes.
There are more feedback loops in play, ones that are only becoming visible to us now.
As we increase our understanding of the way the world works by witnessing its collapse.
The imminent Peak Anthropocentric Era – one where, amongst other things, the glaciers continue to melt – will see the volcanic activity of the Earth increase… not in our merely human lifetime, but in the centuries to come. Further destabilising the Earth’s climate and, in doing so, the human civilisations reliant upon it… should they survive that long.
The planetary death spiral will intensify.
Short of dramatic change to pull us out of it – that doesn’t backfire and feed the problem itself! – we may be forced to either flee the planet that birthed us, or burrow into it to survive.
[to be concluded]