How volcanoes like Tambora and Laki can affect our ecology

(News & Editorial)

The threat of volcanic activity and occasional eruptions seem to be in the news a lot recently, making one wonder, ‘If volcanoes erupt every year, as they always have and always will, what’s the big deal?’
Answer: 1) All volcanoes have not been created equally, 2) never have so many humans been so dependent on such relatively small warehouse storage and, 3)  just in time deliveries; 4) never has so much of our world’s population lived concentrated in a dependant city environment, while at the same time, 5) without knowledge of the past, feeling safe and secure in their numbers and looking to their governments to cover any ‘eventuality’.
Let’s step back for a moment to get a feel for the truly prodigious natural forces, capabilities  and  health estimates of a volcano affecting modern civilization.

Volcanic eruptions undo all climate change measures
Tuesday 5th July 2011, 6:03AM BST.
“Letter: The volcanic eruption in Iceland, since its first spewing of volcanic ash has, in just four days, negated every single effort we humans have made in the past five years to control carbon dioxide emissions on our planet.
Of course you know about this gas we are trying to suppress – it’s that vital chemical compound that every plant requires to live and grow, and to synthesize into oxygen for all animal life.
The volcanic ash has erased every effort you have made to reduce the evil beast, carbon.
And there are about 200 active volcanoes on the planet spewing out this gas every day.
I don’t really want to rain on your parade too much, but I should mention that when Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, it spewed out more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire human race had emitted in its entire time on earth.
Should I mention the effect of solar and cosmic activity and the well-recognized 800-year global heating and cooling cycle, which keep happening, despite our completely insignificant efforts to affect climate change?
I do wish I had a silver lining to this volcanic ash cloud but the fact of the matter is that the bushfire season across the western USA and Australia this year alone [2011] will negate your efforts to reduce carbon in our world for the next two to three years.”

What have been the truely ‘super eruptions? I don’t mean the smoke and ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano that affected European air service, nor the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa, nor the global cooling event brought by ‘popular’ Mt. Tambora, nor even the Minoan eruption and deluge brought by Mt. Santorini.
The seven ‘big ‘uns’ include:
1)  Mt Toba, Indonesia, erupted 74,000 years ago (with a volcanic crater measuring  a whopping 62 miles by 21 miles). Obviously not the cartoon image of a cinder cone mountain with a little hole in the top.
2)  beautiful Yellowstone (super volcano) National Park, whos caldera (volcanic crater) measures  34 miles by 44 miles
3)  Long Valley, and
4)  Valles Calderas in the United States
5)  Taupo Volcano, North Island, New Zealand;
6)  Aira Caldera, Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyūshū, Japan;
7)  and the Siberian Traps in Russia.
The Siberian Traps are the point of discussion in the next article. This massive eruptive event spanned the Permian-Triassic boundary, about 250 million years ago, and is cited as a possible cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction event. This extinction event, also called the “Great Dying”, affected all life on Earth, and is estimated to have killed 90% of species living at the time. Life on land took 30 million years to recover from the environmental disruptions which may have been caused by the eruption of the Siberian Traps. Super volcanoes erupt very rarely, so are not the main theme of this article compilation.

The cause of Earth’s largest environmental catastrophe
14-Sep-2011, Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, F. Ossing
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“Siberian traps and their relation to the mass extinction 250 million years ago
The eruption of giant masses of magma in Siberia 250 million years ago led to the Permo-Triassic mass extinction when more than 90 % of all species became extinct. An international team including geodynamic modelers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences together with geochemists from the J. Fourier University of Grenoble, the Max Plank Institute in Mainz, and Vernadsky-, Schmidt- and Sobolev-Institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences report on a new idea with respect to the origin of the Siberian eruptions and their relation to the mass extinction in the recent issue of Nature (15.09.2011, vol. 477, p. 312-316).
Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs) are huge accumulations of volcanic rock at the Earth’s surface. Within short geological time spans of often less than one million years their eruptions cover areas of several hundred thousand square kilometres with up to 4 kilometers thick lava flows. [Above right: Location of the Siberian Traps volcanoes and their lava flow.]

The Siberian Traps are considered the largest continental LIP.
A widely accepted idea is that LIPs originate through melting within thermal mantle plumes, a term applied to giant mushroom-shaped volumes of plastic mantle material that rise from the base of the mantle to the lithosphere, the Earth’s rigid outer shell. The high buoyancy of purely thermal mantle plumes, however, should cause kilometer-scale uplift of the lithosphere above the plume head, but such uplift is not always present. Moreover, estimates of magmatic degassing from many LIPs are considered insufficient to trigger climatic crises. The team of scientists presents a numerical model and new geochemical data with which unresolved questions can now be answered.
They suggest that the Siberian mantle plume contained a large fraction of about 15 percent of recycled oceanic crust; i.e. the crust that had long before been subducted into the deep mantle and then, through the hot mantle plume, brought back to the Earth’s lithosphere. This recycled oceanic crust was present in the plume as eclogite, a very dense rock which made the hot mantle plume less buoyant. For this reason the impingement of the plume caused negligible uplift of the lithosphere. The recycled crustal material melts at much lower temperatures than the normal mantle material peridotite, and therefore the plume generated exceptionally large amounts of magmas and was able to destroy the thick Siberian lithosphere thermally, chemically and mechanically during a very short period of only a few hundred thousand years. During this process, the recycled crust, being exceptionally rich in volatiles such as CO2 and halogens, degassed and liberated gases that passed through the Earth crust into the atmosphere to trigger the mass extinction. The model predicts that the mass extinction should have occurred before the main magmatic eruptions. Though based on sparse available data, this prediction seems to be valid for many LIPs.”
[Stephan V. Sobolev, Alexander V. Sobolev, Dmitry V. Kuzmin et al., Linking mantle plumes, large igneous provinces and environmental catastrophes, Nature, vol. 477, p. 312-316, 2011]”

Our personal concern is with the near term potential eruption of either a single large volcano, or a hand full of middle size volcanoes. Any combination of which can act in concert to lower Earth’s average surface temperature a few degrees affecting our: ‘comfort (energy costs/energy availability), crops (food supply), economy (global trade> national economy > corporation/company > your family income) and social peace (international – war, neighborhood – crime ).
The terms: “average surface temperature, comfort, crops, economy, and social peace are part of our ecology, a feed back loop and each with its own small loops.
When the planet’s surface temperature is lowered,  every thing else become unstable and moves away from its long term norm. Readjustments take time and bring about hurt and hardship, it’s Natures Way. Think of it like bopping one side of a spider web and seeing the whole web shake. Everything is connected across the spider web, same as in our ecology, in our activities, in our happiness and in our well being.
What could a fairly large volcanic eruption in the northwern hemisphere do? Lets look at the next article, Future Iceland Eruptions Could Be Deadly for Europe.


Future Iceland Eruptions Could Be Deadly for Europe
September 19, 2011, ScienceNow, By Sid Perkins
“What if one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recent history happened today? A new study suggests that a blast akin to one that devastated Iceland in the 1780s would waft noxious gases southwestward and kill tens of thousands of people in Europe. And in a modern world that is intimately connected by air traffic and international trade, economic activity across much of Europe, including the production and import of food, could plummet.
From June of 1783 until February of 1784, the Laki volcano in south-central Iceland erupted. Although the event didn’t produce large amounts of volcanic ash, it did spew an estimated 122 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide gas into the sky — a volume slightly higher than human industrial activity today produces in the course of a year, says Anja Schmidt, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Historical records suggest that in the 2 years after the Laki eruption, approximately 10,000 Icelanders died — about one-fifth of the population — along with nearly three-quarters of the island’s livestock. Parish records in England reveal that in the summer of 1783, when the event began, death rates were between 10 percent and 20 percent above normal. The Netherlands, Sweden, and Italy reported episodes of decreased visibility, respiratory difficulties, and increased mortality associated with the eruption. According to one study, an estimated 23,000 people died from exposure to the volcanic aerosols in Britain alone. But elsewhere in Europe, it’s difficult to separate deaths triggered by the air pollution from those caused by starvation or disease, which were prominent causes of death at the time.
To assess how such an eruption might affect the densely populated Europe of today, Schmidt and her colleagues plugged a few numbers into a computer simulation. They used weather models to estimate where sulfur dioxide emissions from an 8-month-long eruption that commenced in June would end up. They also estimated the resulting increases in the concentrations of airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers across, the size of aerosols that are most easily drawn into human lungs and that cause cardiopulmonary distress. Then, they used modern medical data to estimate how many people those aerosols would kill.
In the first 3 months after the hypothetical eruption began, the average aerosol concentration over Europe would increase by 120 percent, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The number of days during the eruption in which aerosol concentrations exceed air-quality standards would rise to 74, when a normal period that length typically includes only 38. Not surprisingly, the air would become thickest with dangerous particles in areas downwind of the eruption, such as Iceland and northwestern Europe, where aerosol concentrations would more than triple. But aerosol concentrations in southern Europe would also increase dramatically, rising by 60 percent.

[The redder, the deader. An 8-month-long eruption of an Icelandic volcano could send emissions of noxious sulfur dioxide over Europe, significantly boosting cardiopulmonary death rates during the following year in southwestern England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany.
Credit: A. Schmidt, PNAS Early Edition (2011)]

In the year after the hypothetical eruption commences, the increased air pollution swept from Iceland to Europe would cause massive amounts of heart and lung disease, killing an estimated 142,000 people. Fewer than half that number of Europeans die from seasonal flu each year.
At least four Laki-sized eruptions have occurred in Iceland in the past 1,150 years, Schmidt and her colleagues say. So the new figures are cause for concern.
The team “has done a good job of showing where volcanic aerosols would end up, and the human health response to such aerosols is well understood,” says Brian Toon, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “This is all very solid science.”
Icelandic volcanoes shut down European air traffic for more than a week in April 2010 and for several days in May of this year. But those eruptions are tiny compared with a Laki-sized eruption, which could ground airplanes for 6 months or more, says Alan Robock, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Such an event would have a huge impact on crop yields and, by affecting shipping and air traffic, would also affect Europeans’ ability to import food, he notes. It could even have a dramatic effect on daily life, he says. “If there are sulfur dioxide clouds over Europe, people with respiratory problems can’t do much about it except stay indoors.”

History’s deadliest volcano comes back to life in Indonesia, sparking panic among villagers
September 19, 2011, Associated Press,  Contributers: Robin McDowell and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris.
“Bold farmers routinely ignore orders to evacuate the slopes of live volcanos in Indonesia, but those on Tambora took no chances when history’s deadliest mountain rumbled ominously this month, Sept., 2011. Villagers like Hasanuddin Sanusi have heard since they were young how the mountain they call home once blew apart in the largest eruption ever recorded — an 1815 event widely forgotten outside their region — killing 90,000 people and blackening skies on the other side of the globe. So, the 45-year-old farmer didn’t wait to hear what experts had to say when Mount Tambora started being rocked by a steady stream of quakes. He grabbed his wife and four young children, packed his belongings and raced down its quivering slopes. “It was like a horror story, growing up,” said Hasanuddin, who joined hundreds of others in refusing to return to their mountainside villages for several days despite assurances they were safe.
“A dragon sleeping inside the crater, that’s what we thought. If we made him angry — were disrespectful to nature, say — he’d wake up spitting flames, destroying all of mankind.”

The April 1815 eruption of Tambora left a crater 7 miles) wide and half a mile deep, spewing an estimated 400 million tons of sulfuric gases into the atmosphere and leading to “the year without summer” in the U.S. and Europe.
It was 10 times more powerful than Indonesia’s much better-known Krakatoa blast of 1883 — history’s second deadliest. But it doesn’t share the same international renown, because the only way news spread across the oceans at the time was by slowboat, said Tambora researcher Indyo Pratomo. In contrast, Krakatoa’s eruption occurred just as the telegraph became popular, turning it into the first truly global news event.

…Little was known about Tambora’s global impact until the 1980s, when Greenland ice core samples — which can be read much like tree rings — revealed an astonishing concentration of sulfur at the layer dating back to 1816, said geologist Jelle de Boer, co-author of “Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruption.”
Gases had combined with water vapor to form fine droplets of acid that remained for years in the atmosphere, circling the earth and reflecting some of the solar radiation back into space.
Temperatures worldwide plummetted, causing crops to fail and leading to massive starvation.
Farmers on the northeastern coast of the U.S. reported snow well into July.
In France, grape harvests were decimated. Daniel Lawton of the wine brokerage Tastet-Lawton said a note in his company’s files remarks that 1816 was a “detestable year” and yielded only a quarter of the crop planted.
Soon after the ice core findings, scientists started studying Tambora in earnest…”

If an Icelandic volcano erupts, would tragic history repeat?
21 Sep 2011, ars technica, By Scott K. Johnson
Beginning in 1783, Iceland endured an eight-month-long volcanic eruption that left a seemingly endless haze covering the landscape. The dry fog of microscopic aerosol particles, mostly sulfur oxides, caused the deaths of fully 20 percent of Iceland’s population, along with 75 percent of their livestock.
The effects of the eruption at Laki were not limited to Iceland. In the Netherlands, trees dropped their leaves in June, as if signaling a very early autumn. The number of deaths recorded in England that year was 10-20 percent above average. Reports of deaths and health problems came from as far away as Italy.
The mouthful that was Eyjafjallajökull reminded us in 2010 that volcanoes can easily bring air travel to a grinding halt, but what would happen if an eruption on the scale of Laki occurred today?

[Image right: April 20th, 2010 Smoke and ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano make their way across the landscape in Iceland.]

To estimate the direct impact on human health, a group of researchers first used an atmospheric aerosol model to simulate the eruption of Laki under a range of present-day atmospheric conditions. By doing so, they were able to calculate the resulting concentrations of aerosols over Iceland and continental Europe. They found that average concentrations across Europe would rise to more than double the background average over the first three months of the eruption. The highest concentrations, occurring in northern Europe, would reach more than triple background levels.
Over the course of the eruption, the models estimated that atmospheric aerosol levels would exceed the World Health Organization’s air quality standard for over a month in Europe, and almost 6 months in Iceland.
From there, the researchers used medical studies of the impact of particulate matter to estimate the number of direct fatalities. They found that, in the year of the eruption, volcanic aerosols would cause 50,000 to 230,000 deaths. While that’s certainly a terrible loss of life, it’s actually a significantly smaller percentage of the population than died during the 1783 eruption.

There have been four “Laki-like” eruptions in Iceland over the past 1,150 years—some bigger, some smaller—which means this is not just an academic exercise. It’s a scenario that we could very well encounter in the near future.”

We don’t want to credit a ‘popular volcano’ future eruptions with its past. Tambora’s next eruption could be very small, Laki could erupt and in a few days become quiet. There are plenty of volcanoes in just Iceland who’s past are known and who’s reawakening may surprise us, for example Hekla and Katla. 

.Remember, it’s not just that one very large eruption that can bring global harvests down, but several large volcanoes, or an unusual number of medium size eruptions, or as with Laki, one smaller, long running eruption can do the same.
Comparing climate altering eruptions to – ‘making change for a dollar’. You can pull a dollar bill out of your wallet, or from change in your pocket, select two half dollars, or a half dollar and two quarters, etc. It’s the cumulative amount of  volcanic aerosols and dust being pumped into the upper and lower atmosphere that bring about the temperature change,  shortened growing season, economic, social and negative health effects.

For more specific information, see my posts in in the Categories:
Survival Manual/1. Disaster/Volcanic winter  and
Survival Manual/2. Social Issues/Checklist, 100 things that disappear first
Survival Manual/3. Food and Water/Developing a survival food list
Survival Manual/7. Warehouse/Last minute shopping list


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