1600 Eruption Led to Global Cooling, Social Unrest

Kimberly Johnson
for National Geographic News
April 29, 2008
A catastrophic volcanic eruption in Peru in 1600 caused short-term cooling that sent societies around the world reeling, new research suggests.

The violent eruption of the Huaynaputina volcano in southern Peru is considered to be one of the largest ever recorded in South America.

Scientists have long believed that the event prompted a yearlong cooling of Earth, as sulfur released into the upper atmosphere blocked sunlight from reaching the surface.

The resulting cold snap was felt among civilizations from Europe to Asia.

"We knew it was a big eruption, we knew it was a cold year, and that's all we knew," said study co-author Kenneth Verosub, a geology professor at University of California, Davis.

(Related: "Ancient Global Dimming Linked to Volcanic Eruption" [March 19, 2008].)

The study appeared recently in the journal Eos, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union.

A Bad Year for Wine

When Verosub and co-author Jake Lippman, also of UC Davis, recently scoured historical records for 1601, they found a string of seemingly related events.

A severe winter in Russia led to famine, social unrest, and the eventual overthrowing of the reigning tsar.

An atypical winter brought record snowfalls in Sweden, which led to springtime flooding, a poor harvest, and subsequent increases in hunger and disease.

Records also show that 1601 was a disaster for wine production worldwide, Verosub said.

Eruptions linked to social changes have been observed before, namely with Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815.

The year afterward was known as "the year without summer." Crops failed, and famine and social conflict ensued. These culmination of events may have even prompted European emigration to the U.S., Verosub said.

(Read about a "lost kingdom" found recently on the island of Tambora.)

More Climatic Evidence?

Shanaka de Silva, a geology professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, has researched the socioeconomic impacts of the Huaynaputina eruption.

While the new research does not shed light on the actual eruption, it does make the case for global impacts, said de Silva, who was not one of the authors.

"They're relying on their data to make the case for climatic impact, [and] I totally agree," he said.

The Huaynaputina research also builds upon what is known about eruptions and their climatic influences, study co-author Verosub said.

If the research is right, there could be other undocumented volcanic events that have led to cooling, he said.

"I wouldn't claim we proved it, but we certainly proved it is worth looking at this more carefully."

The researchers will next head to Spain, where records from the Spanish colonial empire may hold more clues.

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