The Byzantine historian Procopius, in his chronicle of the Eastern Roman Empire’s war against the Vandals in 536 A.D. wrote that, "during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness . . . and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear."
For centuries many sober historians doubted that Procopius could have been telling the truth and dismissed the passage as ancient exaggeration since a year without sunshine would usher in what we moderns would now categorize as a "nuclear winter." That is nonetheless what much of the human race might have had to endure in 536 A.D., not owing to thermonuclear devices but to something even more powerful: volcanism.
Geologists are well aware that massive explosions may eject enough dust and debris into the atmosphere sufficient to bring on "volcanic winters." Whatever was transpiring in the darkness falling on the battle lines between the Byzantines and the Vandals, at the same time the Irish Annals were recording a "Year Without Bread," yellow dust was documented falling in China like snow, crops were failing in Southeast Asia, Norse chronicles were bemoaning a "Fimbulvinter" (outrageously long winter) and a severe drought in Peru was punishing the Moche culture.
More telling, at this same time something terrible was happening in Mesoamerica with civilization there suffering a "Mayan hiatus" — settlements abandoned, cultural life faltering, political chaos, and society coming apart at the seams.
Recently half of the mystery was solved. It had long been suspected that the Ilopango caldera in Central America had been at the heart of the enigma. In 2012, the stump of a tree was unearthed in El Salvador that had somehow made it through the pyroclastic flow from a super-volcanic explosion that launched an astounding twenty cubic miles of detritus into the atmosphere.
Carbon-14 dating had found the first smoking gun, but it’s now believed another tectonic monster was simultaneously responsible for a savage double-punch that wracked Earth’s populations within months of the Ilopango mega-eruption. The short list is down to Krakatoa, Rabaul, or Mount Tambora in South Asia.
There is growing speculation that the number of civilizations that have been rent asunder by earthquake, volcano and/or tsunami at just the critical moment in their history — pulling down defensive walls, changing the course of rivers, increasing vulnerability to attack, etc. — is no small list. Indeed, the catalogue of potential victims includes some world-class candidates.
The Minoan civilization (2000 B.C. — 1450 B.C.) suffered a cataclysmic seismic disaster in 1645 B.C. when the Santorini volcano blew half of the island into the stratosphere, sending a tsunami of stupendous height to devastate the northern coast of Crete.
It knocked the Minoans down so hard that they never really regained their feet again.
It's been suggested that a combination of lost fleets, wrecked harbors and coastal cities, loss of trade and other cascading calamities weakened the Minoans to such an extent that they finally were unable to defend themselves from neighboring freebooters and enemies who took their advantage.
The decline or fall of the Mayan city-states of Quirigua, Xunantunich and others in Central America, Megiddo, and Jericho in the Mideast, the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley might have seismic connections. There is even question now as to whether Troy was brought down not so much by the valor of Achilles and Agamemnon but rather more by Poseidon, god of the sea, and of — earthquakes. It may well be that a few chronicles over the last 5,000 years of recorded history could stand some revisions after all.
Americans in the 21st century, safe and secure in a seemingly invulnerable, indestructible cocoon of technological invincibility and surety, tend to look back on these footnotes in history as perhaps interesting but not really germane to our own lives. Not many imagine that anything comparable to a year without bread could ever happen now.
But it could.
Ticking beneath our own homeland is a colossal time bomb capable of unleashing astonishingly destructive power. The Yellowstone Caldera in northwestern Wyoming is a supervolcano. It’s called "super" because every so often when it empties its magma chamber it affects the entire North American continent—and the world. The last eruption — 640,000 years ago — hurled 240 cubic miles of rock, dust and cinders into the sky.
When it next erupts it will likely bury much of the western half of North America in a layer of volcanic ash. All that very well could put a dent in deliveries of baked goods to more than a few people.
According to most scientists’ calculations its recurrence interval is between 600,000 and 800,000 years, so it could happen tomorrow — or after the next ice age comes and goes.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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