Published online 11 April 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.747

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The volcano that changed the world

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

HuaynaputinaDid the Huaynaputina volcano, seen here from a satellite, inflict misery on the world?ASTER Volcano Archive

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 EOS1. 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.

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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. 

  • References

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