Tag Archives: climate

Mystery supervolcano is at the root of the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype

The Mad Scientist stereotype was caused ultimately by a supervolcano that nobody can locate to this day
The Mad Scientist stereotype was caused ultimately by a supervolcano that nobody can locate to this day

In 1808, a massive volcano erupted somewhere on Earth. So large was the eruption that it bellowed sulfate particles into the atmosphere that caused significant global cooling in the years that followed (Guevara-Murua 2014). Despite its gargantuan size, nobody to this day has been able to locate the volcano or find any direct eyewitness accounts of its eruption. The volcanic eruption of 1808 remains an unresolved scientific mystery to this day.

How do we know this mystery volcano ever erupted at all? The first piece of evidence is an increase in sulfuric acid concentration found in Greenland ice cores, which are a characteristic ‘chemical signature’ of sulfur-rich volcanic eruptions (Dai 1991). The only major spike in sulfuric acid concentration in Greenland ice that doesn’t align with a real volcanic eruption observed somewhere on Earth is the spike found around 1808, suggesting the existence of this mysterious volcano.

The second piece of evidence is called the ‘sulfur isotope anomaly’. Deposits of sulfur buried deep underground have a different isotopic composition compared with sulfur sources on the planet’s surface. In the same way that we can monitor the effects of fossil fuel combustion on atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, we can quantify the amount of sulfur emitted from volcanoes by measuring changes in the relative quantity of sulfur-33. A huge spike in Δ33S suggests an enormous volcanic eruption occurred – and that’s exactly what we see when we study samples from the year 1808.

The third piece of evidence comes from trees. Trees grow at different rates depending on the climate. In particular, trees grow faster when it’s warmer (but not too hot, of course, which inhibits their growth somewhat), and they grow more slowly when it’s cold. Counting tree rings can reveal not only the age of the tree, but measuring the thickness of each tree ring allows researchers to estimate the amount of growth the tree accomplished in a given year. By measuring different trees in the same region, researchers can gain insight into the past climate of that particular region. Analysis of tree rings has shown that bristlecone pine trees had drastically decreased growth rates in the summer of 1809, suggesting the climate cooled significantly around that time (Salzer 2007). Cooling might have been caused by a giant volcano.

While none of this evidence amounts to a direct observation that the mystery supervolcano ever erupted, we do have eyewitness accounts of volcanic ejecta from exactly the same time. All the evidence, taken together, definitely points to the fact that the supervolcano did in fact exist. Scientists, in fact, are certain.

The first eyewitness account was written a highly respected Colombian scientist called Francisco José de Caldas, who described “a transparent cloud that obstructs the sun’s brilliance” over Colombia for several months from December 1808 to February 1809. The second eyewitness was a physician named José Hipólito Unanue who wrote about seeing “sunset afterglows” over Peru in the same time period. Both these observations are characteristic of large volcanic eruptions.

The fact that atmospheric haze was observed in both Colombia and Peru, which are in the southern and northern hemispheres respectively, suggest that this volcano was located somewhere in the tropics. These observations imply that ash was cast 2,600 km in all directions but the effect on the climate was global. One researcher is quoted as saying the mystery volcano “blanketed the planet in ash”. (Cole-Dai n.d.)

Vulcanologists rate volcanic eruptions on a scale called VEI (volcanic explosivity index), which is similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes. It’s a logarithmic scale that approximates the volume of ash that’s ejected by a particular eruption. The logarithmic nature of the scale means that while a VEI-3 eruption is called “severe”, a VEI-4 event is called “cataclysmic”. In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland, resulting in ash cloud so large that it caused severe delays to air traffic across Europe, Greenland, Russia and eastern Canada. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption was a VEI-4 (“cataclysmic”) event.

When Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1908, killing 57 people and causing $1.1 billion of damage across Canada and the US, it was classified by vulcanologists as a VEI-5 (“paroxysmic”) event. Alarmingly, the mystery volcano in 1808 was at least 10 times more devastating than Mount Saint Helens in terms of the volume of ash ejected. The mystery volcano was a VEI-6 event, and it’s described by vulcanologists as “colossal”.

Volcanic ash acts “like a giant window shade, reflecting sunlight and lowering temperatures on the ground for years afterward” (Cole-Dai n.d.). Temperatures across Europe were measurably lower in the years that followed as the ash cloud obscured incoming rays from the sun. Trees grew more slowly (as evidenced by tree ring data), harvests were diminished and the climate cooled for several years afterwards.

This cooling came at a very inconvenient time. Temperatures were already lower than usual in the northern hemisphere due to the Little Ice Age. In a further devastating blow, a second, much larger volcano erupted on April 10, 1815. It was located on Mount Tambora in Indonesia and had an intensity of VEI-7 or “super-colossal” (this is just one level away from VEI-8, which is named rather horrifyingly, “apocalyptic”). Mount Tambora’s eruption was so ‘super-colossal’ that 90% of the islanders on Tambora were killed by lava flowing down from the sky. Downpours of hot ash killed trees and fish for miles around, covering them with inches of grey dust. Hot ejecta was propelled eighteen miles into the air above the volcano producing a ‘boom’ that could be heard a thousand miles away. People across Indonesia mistook the volcanic ‘boom’ for a ship’s rescue signal or a bomb detonation. Some army officials across Indonesia’s vast archipelago even dispatched troops to defend their islands after mistaking the ongoing volcanic roar for the sound of an invading army.

The sulfur dioxide released from the super-colossal Mount Tambora explosion reacted with gases in the stratosphere to produce 100 million tons of sulfuric acid, H2SO4. The sulfuric acid condensed and remained suspended in an ‘aerosol cloud’ (basically a cloud) that was accelerated by stratospheric jet streams (basically very strong winds) until the entire globe was smeared with a thin layer of H2SO4. This is a rare event, and only happens following truly colossal volcanic eruptions. Interestingly, H2SO4 reflects incoming rays from the sun, and temperatures, which were already low as a result of the mystery supervolcano in 1808, were lowered yet again. The year 1815 was, as some writers put it, “the year without a summer”. Temperatures that year were about three degrees lower than usual across Europe, which is incredible considering that both volcanoes erupted near the equator.

If the Mount Tambora volcano was a little smaller, the sulfuric acid would have formed in the atmosphere instead, and would have rained back down to the surface as acid rain. But at stratospheric altitudes, far above the clouds, the sulfuric acid haze stayed there for years acting as a kind of sunscreen for our planet.

How does this relate to chemophobia? The combination of the Little Ice Age, the 1808 mystery eruption and the super-colossal eruption of 1815 had cooled the climate to such an extent that the weather in Lake Geneva was terrible in the summer of 1815. Who was there at the time? Mary Shelley, of course, who was staying indoors drinking because the weather was too bad to go boating. Cold, bored and disappointed at the lack of a ‘summer’ holiday, Shelley and her companions set about writing ghost stories instead. Among them was Frankenstein, which featured the original, quintessential stereotype of a mad scientist. The cliché lives on to this day.

Thanks, volcano.

Book: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Countdown

Factual, optimistic tour of the Earth that spans space and time.
513 pages, ★★★★★

One bacterium is placed in a bottle at 11:00am. It divides into two bacteria every minute until the bottle is completely full of bacteria at exactly midday. The author asks two questions. One: at what point was the bottle half-full? Two: and at what time exactly did the bacteria start to realise that they were running out of space?

The answers, of course, are “11:59am” and “they didn’t”—which should make any successfully proliferating organism shudder! The author uses this analogy to kick-start the topic of human overpopulation, which the author says is the root of all our problems (climate change, pollution, resource shortage, floods, biodiversity loss—basically everything) and is also the theme of this book.

Rather than focus on the problems, however, the author focusses on the population management solutions that education (educated women have fewer babies), economics (access to birth control) and religion (changing attitudes) are bringing to the table. This was all a pleasant surprise. With the certainty and pessimism of a title like Countdown, I was expecting to read a prophesy of how humankind will die out from ecological disaster by 2050. I opened this book expecting doom-and-gloom climate threats like we saw in Al Gore’s infamous keynote, where everything bad in the world was due to CO2 emissions and CO2 emissions were all our fault. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Countdown had happy overtones throughout—this book bas the anthropological depth of Jared Diamond’s Collapse blended with the optimism of Robert D. Kaplan’s MonsoonCountdown is a celebration of life across different cultures, and how humanity will continue to thrive despite the problems we face.

Most of Countdown is an enlightening tour of the Earth. Reading Countdown makes me feel like a spy satellite, looking closely into global communities that span decades and continents with ease. Reading this book feels like watching Life (a little-known documentary flim) or using the Solar Walk app for iPad. Such detailed, top-down insight of communities in China, India, Israel, Japan and the Philippines make Countdown a fascinating, liberating read. Many of humanity’s ambitions and problems appear to be the same wherever we look.

Countdown begins by examining Israel’s rapid population expansion since 1948. The author then tells us that the limits Israel is facing as it expands beyond its ecological capacity also apply to the entire world. We then learn about rapid population growths in Japan, the post-war Philippines, 1980s China and its one child policy, Britain with its Islamic influx, and in the United States under President Obama. We also visit India, where farmers are suffering so much from the effects of overpopulation that suicides are commonplace and whole communities are constantly on alert to try and prevent them. In each place we visit in this book, the author zooms in on particular characters and dialogues that bring each community to life.

There’s a massive emphasis on three religions in this book: Judaism, Catholicism and Islam. These religions play a huge role in dictating family sizes, birth control (if any) and the level of female education worldwide. Countdown takes a fascinating look at the mentalities behind family size and the preferred methods of birth control in different religious communities. The reader is shown the obvious health benefits of monogamy and a low birth rate, and how female education can help to promote both. The book gives ample examples of how religious leaders (even the infamously busy Mormons) are doing their bit to reform their practices, reduce the local birth rate and improve women’s rights at the same time.

The author is very positive throughout Countdown. Even though he describes some miserable scenarios (particularly in India and Pakistan), the book’s respectful, optimistic tone and abundance of success stories make it a very uplifting read.

One of those success stories—although not connected to population—is hydrogen fuel cells. I was at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in 2009, where one of the speakers told us that only hydrogen fuel cells powered by hydrogen obtained by the solar-powered splitting of water could power all human activity sustainably. I’m a huge fan of this idea, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn that the author is also a fan of this little-known technology in Countdown. (The only thing holding back further development is the lack of an artificial “photosystem”—a kind of crystal—but we’re slowly getting there.)

Some other interesting points the author raises include:

  • Eradicating diseases also increases the human population. Should charities who help eliminate malaria also be required to invest in family planning education initiatives in the same places?
  • Reduced breast feeding (a worldwide phenomenon) leads to hormonal changes that result in more pregnancies because lactation suppresses ovulation.
  • The Population Bomb in the late 1960s predicted massive famines, especially in Asia. Fortunately, Norman Borlaug invented a dwarf wheat with a high yield so that impending crisis was averted.

In conclusion, population reduction—a topic so controversial that most scientists don’t want to address it—is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. It’s a magic bullet. Two billion is the “ideal population” of the Earth that Daily and the Erlichs calculated back in the 1990s. I commend the author for tackling this highly controversial topic (spanning religion, birth control, female education and poverty) with respect and optimism, and making Countdown a fascinating, uplifting read in the process. Highly recommended for anyone interested in climate, sociology or human geography. ★★★★★

Book: The Dance of Air & Sea

The Dance of Air & Sea
Only a book this good deserves Helvetica (probably the most beautiful font).

Beautiful. Thematically, like Nocturne for the oceans. Stylistically unparalleled.
288 pages, ★★★★★

It’s a pleasure to read, “we’re all super-interconnected” in a climatology book, especially when most other books are clinging to Al Gore’s domesday-and-guilt formula. Cool It! avoided that spin very successfully, but even that [four-star] book lacked the depth of this one. The Dance of Air & Sea excels in its field: not only is it rational and well-referenced, but it’s also interlaced with stories, history and wisdom. This book is full of stories that other people will be interested to hear.

The Dance of Air & Sea is far more knowledge-rich than its moon-based counterpart, Nocturne. This book’s author, Arnold H. Taylor, has been an oceanography professor for 30 years at Plymouth Marine Laboratory—arguably the best place in the world for ocean research—and is thus perfectly suited to write this book. He is a well-read, high-level academic, which makes every sentence interesting either culturally or scientifically. Reading this, I made a lot of notes.

Some interesting snippets from this book include:

Page 32: containers of floating, plastic toys were spilled into the ocean and tracked by satellite to monitor ocean currents

Page 58: trawler-fishing is a double-edged sword: predators are harmed more than prey, allowing the prey population (usually the stuff we eat) to grow stronger in the long-term.

Page 100: oceanic chlorophyll cools the oceans by up to 1°C. Lose the chlorophyll, and the ocean warms up!

Page 130: oceans are remarkably interconnected: when there’s high pressure in the Pacific Ocean or the Azores, for example, we can expect low pressure in the Indian Ocean or in Iceland at the same time—pressures behave rather like a giant, atmospheric see-saw.

And much more…

Readers who enjoy Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry will love this book: it goes much further academically, but retains the relaxed, knowledge-rich tone that both Bryson and Fry also possess. Definitely five stars for this book. Now, I want to find a book like this about Chemistry. ★★★★★

Book: Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air
A serious cover suits this serious book. (The edition with a colourful cover gives you the false impression that this book is somehow ‘fun’).

Pleasantly optimistic but overly simplistic.
384 pages, ★★★

If only all the world’s energy needs and its climate worries could be solved by one author with a laptop. That’s what this book attempts to do. Even an optimist would struggle to believe that. It takes the collective action of many people’s mindsets and lifestyles, along with concerted action by business and governments to manage climatic change and build a reliable supply of renewable energy. Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air simply aims too high.

This book analyses, then over-analyses and extrapolates wildly. (I forgive the author, as it is very difficult to do anything in the field of climate policy without sounding alarmist—although Bjørn Lomborg was one of few authors to do that successfully.) The fundamental data is abundant and extremely useful for policy-makers. The analysis is a little simplistic, and the numerical extrapolations are not to be believed at all. Of course it would be marvellous for the UK to become energy-independent on solar, wind and biomass by 2050, but investors won’t be encouraged by these hasty, lofty calculations. Gut instinct is enough.

Apart from the opportunities posed by building a giant dam across the Severn Estuary (a project probably beyond Britain’s capability right now), the reality is that Britain isn’t particularly well-suited to energy production. The UK has no more coal, no more gas, and no extreme weather that would make solar power or wind turbines highly profitable (try the Sahara or northern Europe for that). Perhaps Britain should focus on other industries (like a high-voltage, intercontinental direct current electric grid) and import energy instead?

The dodgy references worry me. They’re all internet-based and are written bewilderingly as a series of short URLs (like bit.ly/4dgf82). I know from experience that there’s enough material on Google to support basically any thesis—or even a pair of contradicting theses.

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is a collection of good ideas—but take the quantified results with a pinch of salt. Three stars for optimism and for effort. This book isn’t the magic bullet it appears to be. ★★★

Book: Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming

Your exit from climate spin
244 pages, ★★★★

Rational people are disrespected in the climate debate. Those trying to do good by whitening clouds, eliminating soot emissions, or calculating the effects of stratospheric sulphur dioxide coolants are ostracised from the discussion.

Climate is the only major debate where rational people are sidelined as “careless”, “denialist” or as “crazy sun-bombers with space-mirrors”. This crap appears in newspapers too much. Most people in the climate debate are hyped, extremist fools. There’s just no reasoning with them…

…So use Cool It to assert your position on climate change. When you next encounter a climate-brainwashed individual, keep your cool and explain that there are more important issues than reducing CO2 emissions for now (one of them being reducing particulate emissions). When they boil up and call you a “denier”, tell them to read Cool It before continuing the discussion.

If Al Gore’s in the red corner, and Big Oil is in the blue corner, Bjørn Lomborg is the calm umpire that brings an end to the fight. Despite stepping into a political minefield, Bjørn Lomborg refrains from fighting the alarmist consensus; rather, he simply ends the debate.

Cool It draws an analogy between climate and traffic speeds. Lomborg writes that, “1.2 million people worldwide die in traffic accidents each year… We could avoid all of these deaths by imposing worldwide speed limits of 5mph.” Lomborg likens this absurdity to that of reducing CO2 emissions in order to reduce global temperatures. He also adds that if the speed limit debate were as polarised as the climate debate (with only two camps: those advocating 5mph and those advocating 205 mph), then almost zero progress would be made. That’s what we see in the climate arena.

Cool It is extremely well-researched, which is demonstrated by its 77 pages of notes and references. The book’s only shortcoming is that its argument is just so obvious… but not obvious enough for the millions of CO2-obsessed individuals out there. Next time you meet one, make them read this book★★★★