Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Guest Post: Bryan Cook on Volcanism

My erudite friend Bryan Cook penned this guest post, reflecting on the happenstances that bring us to where we are and those of the future, especially volcanism.

Reflections from the Gloom and Doom Sandwich Man

This Season of Giving and Hope, I reflect on how lucky those of us with Anglo-Celtic roots are to exist. Whether by a genetic resilience, fortune or immigration, voluntary or enforced, we are the descendants of those who survived the major famines and plagues which devastated the British Isles since the last Ice Age. Doubtless many branches of our family trees have been lost to such radical pruning!

This is not to downplay the cumulative losses in childbirth, to diseases from poor sanitation and to war, which certainly exceed the pandemics such as the Black Death which alone culled the global population from some 450 million down to 350-375 million in the 14th century (between 30% and 60% of Europe’s population).

Between about 1005 AD and 1879, 15 famines killed many millions in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland due to blights afflicting mono-cultures of non-native food crops, notably the potato, to agricultural mismanagement and to seemingly cyclical poor harvests of crops and livestock struck by inclement weather at critical seasons. Some of these famines were severe enough to reshape agrarian landscapes throughout the British Isles. In the subsequent centuries, the Isles have been famine free, due to the progress of preventive and ameliorative science, transportation and international trade. However, we are not immune from one Sword of Damocles, volcanism.

1258 AD was described by medieval chroniclers as a “the year without a summer”. It was unseasonably cold with poor harvests devastated by heavy floods. Thousands perished from famine and consequent diseases to be buried without record in mass graves. The Samalas volcano on Indonesia’s Lombok Island had ejected a 25 mile-high plume of dust and sulphur dioxide which blocked sunlight and dramatically cooled the planet. This dwarfed by an order of magnitude the eruptions of Krakatau in 1883 and Tambora in 1815. But was itself much smaller than the eruption of the super-volcano Campi Flegrei in the boot-arch of Italy. Some 40,000 years ago, it blasted 250 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, resulting in acid rain and cooler temperatures across of Europe, Asia, and even parts of North America, likely giving the coup-de-grace to the last sparse Neanderthal communities.

The scientific jury is hung when it comes to predicting the next super volcanic event, the geological variables are complex and estimates range in the tens to hundreds of thousands of years. But this does not rule out one happening within the next century. It is reported that there are at least 10 candidates globally which include the Campi Flegrei (South Italy) and Yellowstone (Wyoming) calderas. The geologic record attests to these having potentials to cast Euro-Asia, the Middle East and North America, including parts of Canada, into a decade of perpetual solar winter and mass extinction against which all the consequences of anthropocentric and naturally-induced climate change will pale.

There will be seismically recorded warning periods of perhaps decades; however it is doubtful that global safety nets will be established due to costs and national self-interests. Global political power will shift to nations or territories which are relatively unscathed which would include Africa, China, India, Scandinavia, South America, Australia and northern elements of the former USSR. I suspect that our world will go on with business-as-usual until this inevitability happens, though we may well have destroyed ourselves by some other means, been hit by an “extinction” meteorite or be in some state of advanced artificial intelligence by then!

Happy New Year and a Volcano Free 2018!

Read some of Bryan's earlier Poetry and Reflections.


Anonymous said...

Excellent Bryan. I think the most amazing thing about my family history is that any of them actually survived what I know they went through ....... in rural Essex during an agricultural downturn which forced them into a city for the first time, in the east end slums of London, to another slum in Battersea, in the nasty mines of Ayrshire, in a one room 10 square foot charity cottage in a tiny village in Oxfordshire, to Malta with the army, to India and back many years later, etc etc. etc. Cheers, BT

Lesley Anderson said...

Bryan, we have been talking about this since we stopped in Iceland on our way back from Spain in November considering that their Bárðarbunga volcano is showing signs of erupting! I am always amazed and grateful that somehow my ancestors survived the famines, plagues, volcanos and diseases that wiped out so many. Our time on this planet is to be celebrated until the darkness comes! Thanks for a great article - Les

Gail Roger said...

Well, to paraphrase Max Quordlepleen from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

"I think it's wonderful how all you family researchers strive to make better family history societies and struggle to get your pedigrees and timelines right. It gives one hope for the future of lifekind.

"Except, of course, we know it hasn't got one."

Happy New Year to you guys, too. Geeeeeez.