More about shockwaves of the volcanic kind

Although we are obsessed with a few possible shockwaves, there are many others to which we remain oblivious.  We put disproportionate resources into the few, in effect magnifying the danger from the others.  We have been warned about the others, but prefer to remain blind.  Here’s one example:

Atmospheric and environmental effects of the 1783–1784 Laki eruption: A review and reassessment“, Thorvaldur Thordarson and Stephen Self (Profs Geology, U Hawaii at Manoa), Journal of Geophysical Research, 8 January 2003 — Abstract (red emphasis added):

The 1783–1784 Laki flood lava eruption in Iceland emitted ∼122 megatons (Mt) SO2 into the atmosphere and maintained a sulfuric aerosol veil that hung over the Northern Hemisphere for >5 months. The eruption columns extended to 9–13 km and released ∼95 Mt SO2 into the upper troposphere/lower stratosphere (i.e., the polar jet stream), enforcing a net eastward dispersion of the plumes which reacted with atmospheric moisture to produce ∼200 Mt of H2SO4 aerosols. Away from source, the Laki aerosols were delivered to the surface by subsiding air masses within anticyclones.

We show that ∼175 Mt of H2SO4 aerosols were removed as acid precipitation and caused the extreme volcanic pollution (i.e., dry fog) that effected Europe and other regions in 1783. The remaining ∼25 Mt stayed aloft at tropopause level for >1 year. The summer of 1783 was characterized by extreme and unusual weather, including an unusually hot July in western Europe, most likely caused by perseverance of southerly air currents. The following winter was one of the most severe winters on record in Europe and North America. In these regions, the annual mean surface cooling that followed the Laki eruption was about −1.3°C and lasted for 2–3 years. We propose that the upper troposphere/lower stratosphere aerosols from Laki disrupted the thermal balance of the Arctic regions for two summers and were the main mechanism for the associated climate perturbations.

Eruptions of Laki magnitude have occurred in the recent past in Iceland and will occur again. If such an eruption were to occur today, one of the most likely immediate consequences would be disruption to air traffic over large portions of the Northern Hemisphere.

That was a good call!  But these impacts on climate and transportation systems are but a tiny example of what a volcano — let alone a supervolcano — can do.  Scientists have identified many larger effects.   Such the eruption of Toba, almost exterminating the human race.  The eruption of Thera, destroying the Minoan civilization.  And — “Were the Dark Ages Triggered by Volcano-Related Climate Changes in the 6th Century? (If so, was Krakatau volcano the culprit?)“, Ken Wohletz (volcanologist, Los Alamos National Laboratory), EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 48 (81) — Abstract:

Modern history has its origins in the tumultuous 6th and 7th centuries. During this period agricultural failures and the emergence of the plague contributed to:

  1. the demise of ancient super cities, old Persia, Indonesian civilizations, the Nasca culture of South America, and southern Arabian civilizations;
  2. the schism of the Roman Empire with the conception of many nation states and the re-birth of a united China; and
  3. the origin and spread of Islam while Arian Christianity disappeared.

In his book, Catastrophe An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World, author David Keys explores history and archaeology to link all of these human upheavals to climate destabilization brought on by a natural catastrophe, with strong evidence from tree-ring and ice-core data that it occurred in 535 AD. With no supporting evidence for an impact-related event, I worked with Keys to narrow down the possibilities for a volcanic eruption that could affect both hemispheres and bring about several decades of disrupted climate patterns, most notably colder and drier weather in Europe and Asia, where descriptions of months with diminished sun light, persistent cold, and anomalous summer snow falls are recorded in 6th-century written accounts. Writings from China and Indonesia describe rare atmospheric phenomena that possibly point to a volcano in the Indonesian arc.

Although radiocarbon dating of eruptions in that part of the world are spotty, there is strong bathymetric and volcanic evidence that Krakatau might have experienced a huge caldera eruption. Accordingly, I encouraged a scientific expedition to be led by Haraldur Sigurdsson to the area. The expedition found a thick pyroclastic deposit, bracketed by appropriate radiometric dates, that suggests such a caldera collapse of a Proto-Krakatau did occur perhaps in the 6th century. Bathymetry indicates a caldera some 40 to 60 km in diameter that, with collapse below sea level, could have formed the Sunda Straits, separating Java from Sumatra, as suggested by ancient Javanese historical writings. Such a caldera collapse likely involved eruption of several hundred cubic kilometers of pyroclastic debris, several times larger than the 1815 eruption of Tambora.

This hypothetical eruption likely involved magma-seawater interaction, as past eruptions of Krakatau document, but on a tremendous scale. Computer simulations of the eruption indicate that the interaction could have produced a plume from 25 to >50 km high, carrying from 50 to 100 km3 of vaporized seawater into the atmosphere. Although most of the vapor condenses and falls out from low altitudes, still large quantities are lofted into the stratosphere, forming ice clouds with super fine (<10 micrometer) hydrovolcanic ash.

Discussions with global climate modelers at Los Alamos National Laboratory led me to preliminary calculations that such a plume of ash and ice crystals could form a significant cloud layer over much of the northern and southern hemispheres. Orders of magnitude larger than previously studied volcanic plumes, its dissipation and impact upon global albedo, the tropopause height, and stratospheric ozone are unknown but certainly within possibilities for climate destabilization lasting years or perhaps several decades. If this volcanic hypothesis is correct, the global, domino-like effects upon epidemics, agriculture, politics, economics, and religion are far-reaching, elevating the potential role of volcanism as a major climate control, and demonstrating the intimate link between human affairs and nature.

For other explanations of the extreme weather of 535-536 AD, see Wikipedia.

Other posts about shockwaves

  1. The most dangerous form of Peak Oil, 8 April 2008
  2. The “Oil Shockwave” project: well-funded analysis of the obvious, 10 April 2008
  3. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off, 8 May 2008
  4. Spreading the news: the end is nigh!, 8 May 2008
  5. What does $120 oil mean for the global economy?, 15 May 2008
  6. There is no “peak water” crisis, 19 June 2008
  7. A reply to comments on FM site about Global Warming, 17 November 2008
  8. We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?, 30 December 2008
  9. Comment: warnings about a reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, 30 December 2008
  10. About our certain doom from the Yellowstone supervolcano, 11 January 2009
  11. Bad news for India, probably for China, perhaps for the US as well, 11 September 2009 — About peak fresh water
  12. A serious threat to us – a top priority shockwave – a hidden danger!, 20 January 2010 — About Xenoestrogens as a pollutant

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