Predictions are easy to make, but seldomly turn into reality. Thinking back to my youth, we all believed that space travel and flying cars and robots were within our grasp, but only few people at that time realized the rise of the mobile phone, social media or the dramatic effects of global warming through carbon dioxide emissions.
IT’s importance is steadily increasing, even causing doubts about our own reality, but if we look back at the past, what can we learn from it for our future? Is space travel indeed possible? Is humanity’s progress linear or happening in leaps and bounds?
I studied biology, and within that discipline the topic of evolution is particularly intriguing. Evolution is a great driving force, not only in the biological world, but also in chemistry and physics and even in human behavior and religion (the topic of the “meme” as opposed to “gene” – more about that later).
Evolution is hardly ever linear, it seems to find its way through a highly complex, multidimensional maze of influencing factors and powers.
Species come and go. The dinosaurs ruled the world for millions of years, but disappeared (most likely) in the aftermath of an asteroidal impact and a resulting dramatic drop in temperature.
It is these types of unpredictable, uncontrollable events that greatly affect life on Earth. One of those factors that has come evermore center stage over the last few years is volcanic eruptions, as combined research across multiple disciplines can now better unravel major past eruptions and their effects.
I spent some time reading up on volcanic incidences of the last few thousand years.
The volcanic explosivity index (VEI) indicates the strength of an eruption, and the truly big ones are above a VEI of 6. About three dozen of those happened in the last 2000 years. Eruptions of this strength can dramatically cool global climate and lead to global winter, a result of the amount of sulfur dioxide emitted.
One such event was the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora (Indonesia). It caused a dramatic cooling of the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to the “year of no summer” in 1816. That year was characterized by a dramatic agricultural disaster. A red fog covered parts of the globe, and crops froze to death. Rain in Europe ruined the harvest and famine broke out, forcing families to travel long distances, begging for food. Food prices rose sharply, farmers and enterprises went out of business and riots broke out. In Asia, the monsoon was disrupted and flooding further impacted the death of the harvests.
This explosion had a VEI of 7, and was comparable to another explosion that happened about 1900 years ago.
Try to imagine the effects of such a blast on today’s world. The ash of such an eruption would lame all air traffic (which didn’t exist in 1816). The associated agricultural catastrophe would lead to dramatic food shortages, which would especially affect the densely populated regions of our world. Millions of people would die, social unrest would break out.
In the years after 1816, recovery seems to have been swift, but it is suspected that in the aftermath e.g. the migration from New England towards the Midwest may have accelerated. I would suspect that such an explosion would have much more dramatic socio-economic effects on our global, hyperconnected and therefore more vulnerable society. It could lead to a breakdown or at least redirection of our technological development. It would certainly and dramatically affect our society and it’s development.
How can we protect ourselves from such a catastrophe? It is wise to stockpile food and water so that survival is possible for weeks, or even better months. The challenge is that today’s supply chains will break down quickly, and not only in case of a volcanic eruption. Beyond that – there’s very little that can be done. Life is unpredictable, as is evolution.