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Eruptions that shook the world

Overview of Chapters

Book cover

Chapter 1 sets the scene by reviewing the most pertinent concepts of volcanology. It reviews the kinds of volcanoes and eruptions that are capable of ‘shaking the world’ and how often do they do it. Then, the broad structure of the book is as follows: Chapters 2 and 3 provide the necessary background for understanding how volcanoes can abruptly change the environment and impact human societies across a spectrum of spatial and temporal scales. Some hazards are obvious – a glowing pyroclastic current entering through the back door for instance – but others are more insidious and potentially far more pervasive. These include the cold summers experienced after certain large eruptions due to the associated emissions into the atmosphere of chemically reactive gases. These two Chapters thus distinguish between the immediate (but lasting), local-to-regional scale impacts of an eruption, and the hemispheric-to-global scale repercussions of eruption-induced climate change. One rather common (and useful) element – sulphur – turns out to be behind some of the most extravagant and far reaching claims for volcano catastrophism. Chapters 4 and 5 provide further preparatory reading by explaining how we can reconstruct past volcanic events, environments and human responses.

Chapters 6 through 13 supply the main case studies. They are arranged to provide a time travelling experience, embarking in the deep geological past (why did the dinosaurs perish?), and ending in the second decade of the nineteenth century, when the largest and deadliest known historic eruption (of a volcano in eastern Indonesia) apparently contributed to social unrest and outbreaks of epidemic disease in Europe. In between, we review cases of eruptions that had major repercussions on human societies, reaching back to the first migrations of modern humans out of Africa, and the prehistory of Europe, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas.

One reason for this progression through time is to aid reflection on lessons for the future. The final Chapter builds from an understanding of the human ecology of natural disasters, and highlights key issues for managing volcanic catastrophe risks in the world to come. Human society might be more technologically advanced than it was a millennium ago but that does not in itself bring greater security in confronting potential environmental catastrophes. Indeed, the trivially-sized Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland in 2010 dramatically exposed some of the specific vulnerabilities of a globalised world.