Volcano May Have Plunged Planet Into Cold

Nature   11 April 2008


The volcano that changed the world

Eruption in 1600 may have plunged the globe into cold climate chaos.
Alexandra Witze

Four centuries ago, a Peruvian volcano blew its
top – and the whole world may have felt it, a new
study suggests.

The eruption in 1600 of Huaynaputina, a
stratovolcano in the Andes mountains, blanketed
nearby villages with glowing rock and ash, and
killed some 1,500 people. But it may also have
had a far wider effect, by injecting sulphur
particles high into the atmosphere and disrupting
the climate worldwide.

Geoscientists had known that the eruption was
big, but the new research addresses for the first
time just how it might have changed society the
world over.

“We’re talking about sudden and abrupt change
over a very short period of time,” says Kenneth
Verosub, a geologist at the University of
California, Davis. “What would that have done to
the global agricultural economy?”

Quite possibly a lot, he argues in an article
appearing in this week’s issue of the American
Geophysical Union newsletter EOS 1. Verosub and
his coauthor, student Jake Lippman, have trawled
through historical records of crops, famines and
other events in the years just after the
Huaynaputina eruption.

Frost and famine

The year 1601 featured several climate
discrepancies, they note. Tree-ring records show
that it was the coldest year in six centuries in
the Northern Hemisphere – possibly due to the
cooling caused by the sulphur particles spewed
from the volcano.

The effect was felt on the other side of the
globe, where a severe winter caused famine in
Russia. Snow blanketed Sweden, leading to record
flooding and a poor harvest. Wine harvests were
late in France. In Japan, Lake Suwa froze far
earlier than usual. Galleons travelling from
Mexico to the Philippines made the trip
significantly faster than normal, perhaps because
of altered wind patterns.

“What we find is that 1601 was among the coldest
or wettest or worst years, in many cases,” says
Verosub. Some of these events have previously
been attributed to the centuries-long cooling
trend known as the Little Ice Age – but they may
more properly be ascribed to Huayaputina, he says.

The evidence remains circumstantial, and more
records are needed to verify the link between the
volcano and volatile climate. Verosub says that
he wants to look next at Jesuit-held records of
the Spanish empire, as well as county records
from China at the time.

Social effects

The research is some of the first to address the
sociological effects of the Huaynaputina
eruption, says Georgiy Stenchikov, a climate
modeller at Rutgers University in New Brunswick,
New Jersey. “It’s very important to try to
understand and uncover how volcanic eruptions
affect climate and society, to see how society
responded to the stress,” he says.

In fact, Verosub says he got started on the
project when wondering about the 1815 eruption of
Tambora in Indonesia, the largest known in
historical times. Tambora blanketed the
atmosphere with so much sulphur that the
following year became known as the ‘year without
a summer’.

If Huaynaputina had similar globe-altering
effects, it suggests that eruptions of this size
can trigger global climate cooling more easily
than scientists had thought. But Verosub says he
doesn’t lie awake worrying about the next
volcanic eruption that could cool the planet and
shut down global agricultural production.

1. Verosub, K.L. and Lippman, J. EOS 89, 141-142; 2008.



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