We owe our existence to our ever-changing and yet passive climate. Unlike other planets in the universe, here it doesn’t rain molten glass or frozen acid, nor does it have super sonic winds destroying everything in its path. However, the climate isn’t without fault as it is sensitive to very small changes with atmospheric composition. CO2 emissions are the newsmaker of this era, despite constant hyperbole, this is not a non-issue. Climate change of any kind and of any cause has the potential to end society, civilization, and even the very existence of humans but it seems that this fact hasn’t really clicked with most people. It’s been over 200 years since a substantial climate disaster, and people have no perspective on how dependent we are on the stability of Earth’s systems. Humanity hasn’t triumphed over the elements of nature, and the existence of this society has been wholly dependent on a stable climate absent of major geological and cosmological disasters. Only one major climate disaster has plagued human civilization since the beginning and its name is volcanic winter.
Volcanic winter is one of those events that a lot of people are aware of but no one takes seriously. Nuclear or Asteroid Armageddon is more popular with not only the media but the scientific community. Of all the simulations I’ve read about asteroids and nuclear war, I have never seen a simulation of how devastating a severe volcanic winter would be to modern society. I don’t see why there is so little research into this topic considering large eruptions are more likely than asteroid impacts.
Volcanic winter has killed countless people and brought unspeakable anxiety to the people of the past. Blue suns and endless winters make the toughest of men falter and remember that we don’t have as much control over our lives as we think. Famine and fear plagued the peoples of the past when volcanic winter reared its ugly head but that was then. Surely with our advancements in technology, knowledge, and governance, volcanic winter is of no concern to the modern man. Right? This is the assumption of many now, and it’s not without merit. We’re producing more than enough food to feed the world population, our farmers have access to more equipment, land, and other resources than ever before. Life has never been better for most people, and with more assets to fight against disasters, we can surely handle what the people of the past handled before better. Right? It’s complicated. The complexity and conditional effectiveness of current society might be its undoing in an event like this. Recent events have shown that modern society is not as effective at handling global disasters as we might think. How vulnerable is modern society to volcanic winter and what can we do to prepare. Lets answer that question now and end the debate.
Before understanding the societal impact of volcanic winter, we must understand volcanic winter and how convoluted the science actually is. Volcanic winter is caused by sulfur-rich eruptions injecting volatiles into the stratosphere causing global cooling. It sounds simple but it’s not. Reading countless papers concerning historical events such as 536 and 1816, I’ve seen contradicting conclusions and vague statements without any conclusive data. This is made worse with the fact that volcanic winter is not linear in the slightest. A large SO2 load doesn’t guarantee a deep volcanic winter. Tree ring and ice core data give us an incomplete idea on how these events played out and there is still work that needs to be done that can give us conclusive data on the scale and limits of volcanic winter. We’ll use proxy data, historical records, and logic to break down the hazards that volcanic winter will bring and we’ll debunk some myths and misconceptions.
A common argument now is that any global cooling caused by a significant eruption would be soothed by the current global warming trend. However, large eruptions have a more significant impact on radiative forcing in comparison to CO2. Pinatubo, which wasn’t even in the top 25 eruptions of the past 2500 years, had a comparable or even larger impact on radiative forcing than even current CO2 levels.
The current warming could actually enhance the cooling impact of large eruptions thanks to the slowing of currents of the ocean and favorable impact on the aerosol microphysics. Ocean temperatures serve an important role in stabilizing global temperatures. They absorb heat in the summer and release it back in the winter with global current constantly recycling warm and cold water. Slower currents will mean that the ocean won’t be as effective at absorbing or releasing heat leading to more extreme weather. A relatively ineffective heat release will make any volcanic winter worse. Current warming has enhanced the Brewer-Dobson circulation which is responsible for circling the air from the troposphere into the stratosphere, this will take the aerosols higher and make them smaller which would again enhance the cooling from any large eruption.
I actually think that if we were to see significant volcanic winter, another variable that could make the volcanic winter worse is the current levels of water vapor and relatively high rates of evaporation. A volcanic winter would increase atmospheric baroclinic instability. This in conjunction with the excess water vapor and evaporation would lead to some massive Extra-tropical cyclones and regional flooding. I can’t actually speak on how strong these storms would be but it would make sense to see some very extreme storms.
“The Tambora eruption, the largest eruption in the past 800 years, only produced cooling of 0.5 C which is comparable to the cooling of the much smaller Pinatubo eruption and there were no major issues. So we’re going to be fine.” is something that you might hear and I’ve had something to say about that. That (0.5 C) figure) is from a 39 year old study that is pretty outdated, current studies, historical records, and logic all point to the eruption producing a more significant dip in the range of 0.8-1.0 C with significant regional differences.
In most historical volcanic winters, several regions are almost always singled out for the worst impacts. These are the USA, Western and Central Europe, Eastern Asia. So a volcanic winter would likely severely affect the 7 of the 10 world most food-producing countries. The regional variability for volcanic winter is insane. Some areas might see no or negligible cooling while the worst affected areas could see cooling in the range of 2-6 C, much higher than the global average.
There aren’t any infallible numerical values on the climate change following large eruptions of the past only very fallible models but historical records all point to a scale of cooling that we’ve never come close to experiencing Cold blasts, snow and other winter precipitation were recorded in sub-tropical regions in America, China and Europe in every month of 1816. As a person who lives in a subtropical climate (Houston, TX) this would be insane and break the meteorological community. The prospect of at least 1 deep massive freeze and/or snowstorm happening every month of the growing season would cause an insane level of damage to the agricultural industry of the countries affected and this isn’t even the only threat. Dim suns and cloudy days made growing food much harder, as the plants weren’t getting enough sunlight. The haze following Tambora was strong enough to dim the sun so much that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Descriptions of hazes following the 535 and 1815 eruption paints a grim picture:
“In the year 848 [536/37 CE] there was a sign in the sun the like of which had never been seen and reported before in the world. If we had not found it recorded in the majority of proved and credible writings and confirmed by trustworthy people, we would not have recorded it; for it is difficult to conceive. So it is said that the sun became dark and its darkness lasted for one and a half years, that is, eighteen months. Each day it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow. Everyone declared that the sun would never recover its original light. The fruits did not ripen, and the wine tasted like sour grapes”
“It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer. Easterly winds have prevailed for nearly three months past … the sun during that time has generally been obscured and the sky overcast with clouds; the air has been damp and uncomfortable, and frequently so chilling as to render the fireside a desirable retreat”
It is no surprise that people were pushed to famine in these extreme conditions. But the 1816 winter isn’t the worst volcanic winter on record. The volcanic winters of 1601, 536, 1783, 541, 940, 43 BC, and 1454 were all comparable or were worse than 1816 and there are other severe events that weren’t quite as bad but still significant (1258 or 1108 are good examples). The risk is there and it is significant. I am not even considering the larger eruptions tens of thousands of years ago that produced 3-20x times as much sulfur as even the Tambora eruption whose impacts are hotly debated, the consensus is that volcanic winter can cause 8 C of cooling at the max. The consensus isn’t always right so take the value with a grain of salt.
How well modern society handles a volcanic winter would depend on how bad the cooling is and the reaction from governments and people. The prospect of the major powers of the world descending into famine for any reason barring the most extreme of events is almost unthinkable for most but not impossible. We don’t need a supervolcano to bring the world to its knees. Globalization and international trade is one of the reasons why we don’t have really major climate famines anymore. If your country’s agricultural output is dealt a severe blow, you can still receive aid and trade other items for food. Bad local harvests won’t mean your country will descend into famine. Regardless where you are in the world, you usually have something that someone else needs or wants. Can’t have a great agricultural industry? Trade your natural resources, or get into manufacturing and trade cheap items for food. Investors are always looking to make money and they’ll invest in your country’s economic expansion to fill their pockets.No one wants to stop buying and no one wants to stop selling so as long the buyer and seller continues in this song and dance, everything is going to be fine. The world is full of charities and aid just in case something does go seriously wrong so things will never get too bad normally.
This system of trade is subject to disruptions in the economy which one or more factors, unrelated to agricultural production, can cause a spike in global food prices which then leads to civil unrest and food insecurity.
The 2008-2009 food crisis is a good example of this. Food crisis can now be caused by economic speculation and supply issues disconnected from world food production.
The World is still producing plenty of food but that hasn’t abated the current food crisis. Mass protests and riots have plagued the world while over 345,000,000 people are food insecure and while 900,000 are facing famine conditions. All this at a time when food production is still high enough to feed the entire world population easily.
Despite advancements in farming practices, droughts and weather still cause substantial damage to crops. The 2011 la Nina produced one of the USAs costliest droughts and plunged East Africa into famine. Food prices rise quicker than the food production decreases, If food production decreases by 10%, food prices would more than double.
The resources that farmers rely on are dependent on the quality of the economy. If farmers are suddenly left without their fertilizer or gas for their equipment, they’ll be put in a position that they are unfamiliar with and be much less effective at growing food. Without fertilizer, we’ll be stuck with inferior soil. Soil erosion is one of those issues that is much worse than people think. Over half of the topsoil has been destroyed in the past 150 years and this soil is needed for over 95% of the food we grow. This is one of the most ignored issues of this generation and is just as important, if not more important than other ecological issues such as microplastics and ACC.
Another variable is the reaction of the people and government, this is a huge factor for how bad the event would be. Poor decision making and panic will make any bad situation worse. Unlike scientific advancement people and governments now are probably more prone to panic,and bad decisions than ever before. Stability and comfort breeds weakness, who will forget the wholly irrational reactions to COVID-19? Just the buzzword pandemic and the fear-stoking coverage managed to cause an unforgettable amount of anxiety. Too many people panicked and bought questionable items such as toilet paper as if the world was ending and too many governments enforced ineffective and absurd measures that did nothing to help the situation. “If we lockdown, the virus won’t spread!” Yeah it was a complete mess but thankfully COVID-19 wasn’t quite the killer that some feared (or hoped!) it would be.
Public opinion on the virus has changed from an apocalyptic virus that would surely end the world to a mild inconvenience when it was never either. It was just a typical major respiratory pandemic that wasn’t anything that we haven’t gone through before. This event of well precedented scale threw the world into a frenzy that no one should forget, I will never forget hearing news of people killing over toilet paper and other insane nonsense. On the flipside, some people and countries might not take the event too seriously and shun any preparations that would be made. These guys would be in for a nasty surprise as preparations are needed to get through an event like this.
How will all of this relate to a hypothetical volcanic winter? How would the current system react and how bad would it get? It’s going to be complicated. There are a plethora of variables that result in a huge spread of options but the worse the winter the more likely a catastrophe is. I’ve prepared a hypothetical scenario, and remember, this isn’t a forecast or prediction, the purpose of this scenario is to highlight the hazards of volcanic winter, and the problems that modern society would face if preparations aren’t made. Don’t take this too seriously. Let’s make this scenario fun, if the eruption is too small or too big, the scenario will quickly get boring as we’ll just be going through information you’d easily figure out. Oh society might collapse in the face of a supervolcano? Who’d have thunk it? I have gone over several volcanic winter scenarios, a one and done punch (Samalas), one punch-two punch (536-540) or eruption cluster (1107-11); tropical and extratropical and I’ve come up with one that has plenty of fun and drama.
March 25 2023: Bolshaya Udina erupts producing a large sulfur rich VEI 6 injecting 20 megatons of SO2 in the stratosphere sparking fears of volcanic winter. Following the eruption, most scientists come to the conclusion that the coming volcanic winter won’t be as bad as ”The year without a summer” somewhat soothing global anxieties but countries whose agricultural industries are underdeveloped start buying and reserving food for 2024 causing a substantial spike in food prices. All the while another volcano rumbles…
Takeaway: Just the prospect of substantial volcanic winter and some relatively minor preparations will cause disruptions to the economy and trade. Only a few countries trying to prepare along with moderate speculation will cause food prices to spike significantly.
June 21-24 2023: The Coatepeque Caldera erupts producing a massive VEI 7 eruption ejecting over 35 km3 of magme(DRE) and injecting over 80 megatons of SO2 into the stratosphere. Over 6 million people are at immediate risk of death in the eruption. Massive pyroclastic flows kill millions along with massive ashfall, damaging or destroying the agriculture in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Millions of refugees are immediately made and the economy of the country is all but destroyed.
Global panic begins in the days that follow, unending news shows and other fear-stirring media begin covering the prospects of a global cooling catastrophe and unlike the prior eruption, scientists are split in their conclusions and are unable to give a solid forecast. More countries and people try to buy food for the incoming volcanic winter causing global food prices to explode out of control as demand reaches levels never seen before. Seed, farming equipment, Gas, and fertilizer prices inflate out of control. With most people spending their money on food, water and energy. Luxury and other non-essential items lose their buyers and the prices deflate. The combined inflation and deflation of different sectors of the economy bring the worst of both worlds. People’s wages decrease as jobs are cut all the while essential items prices rise. Poorer countries enter famine as they don’t have money or resources to buy food in the chaos. With apocalyptic economic data, global stock markets collapse as droves of investors pull out trillions of dollars of economic assets. Riots and civil unrest grip the world as people desperately fight for essential items and against a real or perceived ineffective government.
Takeaways: Due to a lack of previously made preparations, in the face of a major volcanic winter plenty of countries would make desperate bids to gain the resources to avoid famine but this would cause food prices to inflate out of control. It is completely possible that global trade would collapse just due to a panicked response from the global powers. As the dominating exporting countries might not only limit but even prohibit essential exports while still demanding imports. Countries dependent on these exports will face immediate famine and economic collapse. The dual inflation and deflation would be almost impossible to combat because if all the methods you use to fight one would just make the other worse. On top of this, every one would know that the refusal to prepare could also make things worse in the long run. This is a lose-lose-lose situation.
The damage to critical infrastructure along with a terrible economy would make recovery from the direct impacts of the volcanic eruption in central america almost impossible. Billions of dollars of direct agricultural damage along with a crashing economy could bring global famine before the volcanic winter would start properly.
Autumn-Winter 2023 The first frosts and economic collapse, The cooling from the Udina aerosols would start and peak much earlier than the Coatepeque Aerosols. Damaging frost would likely begin in late September and last through the fall, drought would also start in tropical regions thanks to disrupted monsoons. Along with the first frosts, a dreadful haze would start to cover the northern hemisphere verifying global anxiety. After a whole summer of riots and civil unrest, violence would likely escalate to full civil war and insurrection.even in well developed countries. A balance must be made within the government, it has to be assertive and harsh enough to maintain order within the country but not so harsh that it gives mass support for rebellion. Governments would have to be run by competent and charismatic leaders in order to maintain society and prevent societal breakdown. By now tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in damage would be caused by the riots with potential collapse on the horizon.
A cold autumn and winter would stress the energy market of all countries. Constant storms and riots would cause massive blackouts along with the constant demand continuing to drive up prices with the collapse of global trade. Many countries may not get the oil, gas or coal needed to maintain the electric grid, leading to a dramatic decrease in the manufacturing of essential items. Winter storms would delay and cripple the transportation of essential items throughout the winter making the existing horrible situation worse.
Takeaway: The cooling and haze doesn’t have to cripple the agricultural market directly, it just has to be big enough to sustain the panic and verify the anxieties of the people. Logistics and infrastructure are the drivers of a good economy and prevent famine, it doesn’t matter how much resources you have. If you don’t have the means to transport and use those resources, they’re useless.
2024: The year without heat and the descent into hell
With two different aerosol layers in the NH with different microphysics, a severe volcanic winter is all but inevitable, NH temperatures will fall by 1.25-1.75 C with summer cooling around 2.5 C when the year is over and most of the top food producers would have suffered the worst cooling. Regional cooling peaks at 6 C. Floods are likely across Western Europe, Central and Eastern USA as well as Southern China. The Cold and Wet summer and spring is followed by a harsh and brutal winter that would likely dump large volumes of snow. It is the most intense volcanic winter of the past 2600 years.
Farmers have a hard choice concerning their seed stock, should they plant it and hope for a usable harvest or conserve it for the future? One option could potentially doom their seed in the most critical of moments and lead to a more protracted famine but the other option guarantees major famine while giving hopes for a quick recovery. Trapped in unfamiliar territory with limited agricultural resources most farmers are likely to opt to save most of the seed stock for later But they may be forced to plant the seed stock in the face of public outrage and/or dictatorial government. The farmers might form their own insurrection and fight the government or completely get away with whatever decision they make in the face of toothless and delegitimized governments. A competent government would hear both sides and weigh the potential ramifications of forcing farmers to farm in deplorable growing conditions. Countries such as the USA and Western Europe would likely see some type of violent conflict between farmers, government and the rebels. China and other dictatorships would likely force their farmers to use their seed stock.
In this year, conflict and war is all but guaranteed, looting gangs and militias would spring up with the intention to gain resources, along with extremist political groups that would want to take advantage of government dissatisfaction to further their own agenda, and non-radicals who desire to overcome an perceived incompetent government. The scale of this violence would likely be worse than anything we’ve seen before barring the worst wars in history. In this case it would only serve to make the famine worse. Interregional conflicts are possible as desperate countries fight over dwindling resources such as freshwater and arable land but war based on some type of convoluted political ploy to unite the people against a false villain is also possible and again this would only serve to make the famine worse.
Massive storms and freak weather in the worst affected regions, would do billions of dollars in damage and without a strong labor force and a collapsed logistical system to allow to build back. We could actually see regional power grids go down across the world. A smart but ruthless way to somewhat combat this is to promise skilled and essential laborers most of the remaining resources to maintain infrastructure and some semblance of order. Unfortunately essential workers are likely to not be in good supply and might not even be interested in preserving society.
The volcanic haze would quickly drain the morale of the people for the entire year of 2024. Discolored and weak suns would bring thoughts of armageddon, with the entire globe descending into famine, something that most people are not familiar with. The pain of losing past comfort in just a year would drive insane amounts of pessimism and defeatism that would do nothing to alleviate the situation.
It’s not hell everywhere however. Due to significant regional differences in the volcanic winter, not everyone will see severe climate change and some areas will see benign climate impacts that won’t significantly harm domestic agricultural production. The economic consequences would still cause famine but with some anxiety soothed and the sight of other countries that are crushed by insane weather. Where these regions would be, I can only speculate but Eastern Europe and SE Asia are some good bets with how I’ve shaped this scenario. In any case, global deaths have skyrocketed this year.
Takeaway: The conflict and the fallout following economic collapse would disrupt critical infrastructure and logistics making prospects of fighting the disaster grim. A severe contraction of food supply occurs due to a slew of factors.
2025: The Deadliest Year
Assuming the farmers in the west don’t plant their seed stock and the frosts in the east destroy the crops grown by force in the east, famine would rage on and death rates would continue to increase. The cooling would soften but still be substantial enough to discourage farmers from using their seed stock. Flooding from snowmelt and continuing extreme weather would sustain deplorable growing conditions would sustain the disaster further. This would also likely be the last year of global drought caused by the eruption. The very apparent weakening of the volcanic haze would signal the beginning of the end for the volcanic winter. Stronger suns would boost morale and some positivity would start to return to the general populace. Stronger governance and more competent leaders would’ve likely overthrown or replaced whatever ineffective leadership existed before. Interregional conflicts would likely end in this year as famine makes large scale war impossible. However despite the positive trend, the damage has been done and food production won’t rise enough to soften the famine.
Post-winter years: With most of the significant cooling and other climate effects rapidly weakening after 2025, the farmers that have preserved their agricultural resources can ramp up production. Countries that wasted their seed stock and other resources will find themselves facing protracted famine conditions. The knowledge of modern society wouldn’t be lost and with a tougher and hungry populace, the effort to rebuild would begin immediately. Post-winter conflicts and violence would still be high. Any criminal or radicalist groups that formed during the disaster won’t disappear overnight and would still pose a grave threat to any recovery attempts. The world would be left without superpower so major wars are a possibility as well. It would be a difficult but not impossible recovery
Global disease would rise in the face of the collapse of the medical industry giving way to local and regional disease outbreaks. The deplorable living conditions, full of filth and corpses, with little to no medicine is the prime breeding ground for disease. The primary hazards in this case would be a variety of superbugs and HIV. Here are some diseases that I believe are likely to cause significant outbreaks.
Pneumonia is one of most prevalent respiratory infections worldwide, despite vaccination and antibiotics, Pneumonia kills around 2.5 million a year. Pneumonia is often caused by viruses, such as the flu, common cold, and recently, Covid. This infection preys on bad hygiene and weak immune systems.
Bronchitis is like pneumonia’s little brother, usually caused by the same viruses but bacterial origins also exist.
One of Humanity’s greatest killers, killing 100s of millions of people throughout history. It is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It usually affects the lungs but can infect the kidneys, brain, spine, and more. It currently kills over 1.5 million people a year.
Diarrhea is not respected in the developed world but it is actually one of the worst killers for impoverished countries. Cholera, Giarda, and rotavirus are all just some of the causes for deadly Diarrhea. dirty water, malnutrition, and other bad living conditions are where this disease thrives
- Legionnaires disease
Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaires Disease, reproduces in underused plumbing systems, including hot tubs, showerheads, and hot water tanks. It also thrives in filth.
These are just a few of the diseases whose mortality would likely increase as living conditions would decrease. Viral mutations driven by a large shift in human condition and rapid increase of bacteria number with the collapse of the medical industry would lead to deadly local and regional epidemics across the world.
The death toll and cost of a scenario like this would be insane; this scenario is of a complete economic collapse and partial societal breakdown. An event like this would cost over 100 trillion dollars, thanks to the collapse of global GDP and tens or even hundreds of millions of destroyed or damaged buildings. Entire industries wll be destroyed as the resources needed to maintain them would be too expensive and in short supply. Recovery would take decades, and the existing cultures would be changed dramatically. It is completely possible that the world will never completely recover, as ecological degradation, corruption, and major wars could stop recovery attempts at a certain point
The countries that are hit hardest would be the ones that got the most significant climate impacts or are almost completely dependent on other areas for food. With this scenario Canada, the USA, China, The Koreas, Japan and half of Europe would be hit with the worst climate impacts while sub-saharan Africa and the parts of the MIddle east would be devastated by the collapse of global trade. These areas would likely see the highest death rates. We’ve seen societies get stressed like this before and it wasn’t pretty. 15-40% of the population historically have died from high societal stress famines such as the 1601 Russian famine, the Kanki famine of Japan, The Great famines of the 1690s, and more. There is no reason to assume it would be any different with this scenario. Assuming these regions see similar death rates, the death toll would be 517,000,000 or 1,300,000,000 on top of the fewer but still large amounts of deaths from the remaining population. It may sound dramatic but nuclear winter studies have shown that if the global caloric intake ever gets halved, it could result in a famine that would kill 2,000,000,000 so this isn’t impossible. Life is complicated and our models don’t take everything into account and remember this scenario isn’t a forecast. This is how bad things can realistically can go if severe volcanic winter were to take place based on my research and my perspective on the resiliency of modern society.
It has been speculated that large eruptions trigger severe El Nino’s several years after the volcanic winter ends and with this scenario. A severe El Nino event could produce another albeit less deadly global famine due to the recovery being wholly incomplete. There are some studies supporting this phenomena and others that dismiss it. Even if this hypothesis is true, there is no solid way to forecast the agricultural impact of an event without knowing how strong it is and how severely damaged the world is. It has also been speculated that severe volcanic winter can cause pandemics and while the chain of logic makes sense, the connection hasn’t been proven and we can’t figure the mortality of a pandemic without knowing the virus and its mutations.
I may sound pessimistic but modern society is pathetic in more ways than one. A strong winter storm almost collapsed my state’s power grid in 2021. Europe is wholly dependent on other countries for energy. People are freaking out over minor garbage that doesn’t matter and are prone to emotional and illogical responses. After butchering the responses of disasters of far less magnitude and with no one having learned the lesson I see little evidence to suggest that there will be some type of awakening in the face of such a disaster So It’s likely that the response to any future global catastrophe might be just as bad as the disaster itself.
Regardless of what one might think of my scenario, modern society has proven to be fragile and prone to disruption. Severe volcanic winter is something that hasn’t happened in years and while some things are better since the last time, some things are worse. With a lack of preparation, severe panic is almost guaranteed the next we’ll be faced with another year without a summer or worse. There will be another VEI 7 or 8 and it might or might not happen in our lifetimes but the risk is there and we don’t want to be caught off guard
Tallis, March 2023