Unknown Unknowns

 

640px-Caldera_Mt_Tambora_Sumbawa_IndonesiaIf you time-traveled back to the spring of 1815 and asked anyone in Europe — or, for that matter, much of the rest of the world — what world-historical event was going on that would affect their lives over the next few years, almost everyone would have offered the same answer: Napoleon’s escape from Elba and attempt to reconstruct the French Empire. Each and every one of them would have been wrong.

What they should have been concerned with were the eruptions of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, the biggest of which occurred 200 years ago this week. Tambora was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history; quite possibly, the biggest. The explosion knocked the top mile off of the volcano and threw about 100 cubic kilometers of material into the atmosphere, about 24 times more than Mt. Helens would in its famous 1980 eruption (even the Krakatoa eruption a few decades later would be an order of magnitude less than Tambora). Estimates vary wildly, but low-ball figures estimate that at least 10,000 people died as a direct result of the explosion.

But this wasn’t a mere local news story. Through a combination of the explosion’s size, the height of the ash plume, and their source near the Earth’s equator, the eruption affected the entire world’s climate for the next three years. Again, estimates vary, but it’s likely that an additional 50,000 people were killed by famines and crop failures as far away as the United States, and twice that number more may have died from the typhus and cholera epidemics that followed. Nighttime temperatures in New England plummeted below freezing at least once in June, July, and August of 1816. Food prices surged globally, tens of thousands of farmers and peasants were turned into refugees in China, and the government of Switzerland was nearly overthrown by riots.

The amazing thing about all this is not simply that no one at the time of the eruption realized its significance, but that no one would know its significance until well into the 20th century. The effects could be seen, but no one put the pieces together (to give credit where due, Benjamin Franklin published a paper that conjectured — in all of a few sentences — that global climate changes and volcanism may be connected, the first time such an idea had every been put to paper. It was dismissed out of hand).

Very likely, there is something happening — of which we are wholly ignorant — that will affect our futures as much as some of the things we’re currently granting our attention. It could be a natural disaster (or a man-made one), a technological innovation that changes things dramatically, or the birth of a new religion. On the other hand, it could well be something we’re already concerned with, such as a nuclear war brought on by Iran’s race to get the bomb. We don’t know whether our concerns are prescient, naive, or unnecessarily pessimistic.

But we’ll find out.

Image Credit: “Caldera Mt Tambora Sumbawa Indonesia” by Jialiang Gao (peace-on-earth.org) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are 32 comments.

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  1. Reckless Endangerment Inactive
    Reckless Endangerment
    @RecklessEndangerment

    Great points. Headline echoes Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Historians bringing up counterfactuals when doing their jobs frequently rely more on intuition than you might think in judging what different currents of history were more reasonably expected had certain events not transpired. Humans are better at adapting to the curves nature throws, but arguably still just as susceptible to the big blows (Katrina, massive earthquakes) which are now more financially devastating than ever before.

    • #1
  2. Petty Boozswha Inactive
    Petty Boozswha
    @PettyBoozswha

    Half the scientists and engineers that have ever lived are working right now. I’d recommend every member of Ricochet check out a science blog like NextBigFuture at least once or twice a month to get a perspective on changes that might pull us out of our current slump the way exploitation of the internet did in the ’90’s. A plausible drop in electricity prices from 12 cents a kilowatt to 2.3 cents a kilowatt in the foreseeable future would have a very beneficial impact on development.

    • #2
  3. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @PleatedPantsForever

    TM – speak for yourself, Napoleon’s possible return is a big concern for some of us as he’d force us to use the metric system and my wife would have to retake law school to learn Napoleonic Code (we have enough law school debt already). Plus, do you know anyone who likes Neapolitan ice cream? Everyone I know eats the one or two flavors he/she likes and throws out the rest. But, I digress.

    I often do wonder what ours kids and their kids will think of our climate hysteria years from now after some real problem changes history.

    “So, it was 5 years before X happened and you idiots were instead worried that Manhattan would somehow be under water?”

    “Um, yep.”

    • #3
  4. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @DanielWood

    So if that massive supervolcano simmering away under Yellowstone national park erupts and throws the entire world into a species extinguishing nuclear winter, Hillary’s steady march to her coronation might be derailed.
    There is always a silver lining.

    • #4
  5. Cato Rand Inactive
    Cato Rand
    @CatoRand

    Yup.

    • #5
  6. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore
    @Eeyore

    There are lots of “unknown unknowns” when the world has a major, long-term directional tension between influential groups such as 1) those actually doing AI, who aren’t paying much attention to those considering its potential uncontrollable down sides, and 2) those who just leveled a 3000-year-old city for being idolatrous.

    • #6
  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Little Meyer: “Daddy tells the best bedtime stories, doesn’t he?”

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    1800 and froze to death, the year without a summer. There’s a great song about it, but not everything is out on Youtube.

    Actually, it was probably the Laki eruption starting in 1783 that spurred the French Revolution in the first place. That Icelandic volcano spewed enough particulate matter into the atmosphere to bring on several poor agricultural years for France, whose land use was not of the most modern of the time and they were only marginal agricolists to start with. That’s part of why the French Revolution also involved “land reforms.”

    • #8
  9. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    I think we are headed for water shortages, famines, economic chaos, and a massive war in the middle east within 2 decades.

    But man do Kim Kardashian’s mammalian protruberances look huge these days.

    • #9
  10. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore
    @Eeyore

    DocJay:I think we are headed for water shortages, famines, economic chaos, and a massive war in the middle east within 2 decades.

    But man do Kim Kardashian’s mammalian protruberances look huge these days.

    See, Doc, there’s plenty of attention priorities for, like, everybody!

    • #10
  11. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Modern day Mt. Tambora has already erupted and affected millions of Lives and billions in treasure: Algore.

    • #11
  12. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Pleated Pants Forever:I often do wonder what ours kids and their kids will think of our climate hysteria years from now after some real problem changes history.

    They won’t think of it, because they will never have heard of it.  Ask a teenager today about the extinction level threat posed by the depletion of the ozone layer.  Note the blank stare.

    • #12
  13. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Tom,

    I’d like to go back to your very first paragraph.

    If you time-traveled back to the spring of 1815 and asked anyone in Europe — or, for that matter, much of the rest of the world — what world-historical event was going on that would affect their lives over the next few years, almost everyone would have offered the same answer: Napoleon’s escape from Elba and attempt to reconstruct the French Empire. Each and every one of them would have been wrong.

    Imagine for a moment that it is 1814. You are an English aristocrat. You are vacationing in Europe for the first time in a long while. Of course, the reason is that Napoleon has been imprisoned on Elba. He will escape in 1815 just as you say before he is imprisoned finally on St. Helena. Now back to the English aristocrat and his young wife vacationing in Geneva in 1814.

    You see it is Napoleon that is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Napoleon is the creation of the age of extreme reason. Mankind’s first full seduction by science. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity that become Imperial absolute rule of Army, State, and Church. A real tale of horror that will be repeated again in the 20th century’s experiments with totalitarianism.

    I’m not knocking what you are interested in but in comparison you are fascinated by the trivial and have missed the really big story. Mary Shelley got it right. I’m sure English literature profs at this very moment are missing her genius and focusing ever more intellectual energy on the triviality of Climate Change.

    You see the event that Mary Shelley created her analogy about didn’t affect us for only a few years but is affecting us right up to today and on into the future.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #13
  14. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    Yellowstone national park.

    Or the cubs winning the world series.

    • #14
  15. MikeHs Inactive
    MikeHs
    @MikeHs

    Tambora was a baby eruption of only about 160 cu. km., compared to some of the big eruptions in geologic history, with over 1,000 cu. km. of volcanic material erupted. Yellowstone is on that list, but not at the top. Kind of interesting to think about, eh?

    • #15
  16. profdlp Inactive
    profdlp
    @profdlp

    DocJay:…But man do Kim Kardashian’s mammalian protruberances look huge these days.

    You thinks those are big, wait ’til she turns around.

    • #16
  17. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    anonymous:

    How many people remember the stunning Pinatubo sunsets of 1991? It reminds one that these local events have global consequences.

    Some have suggested Edvard Munch’s The Scream was inspired by a sky colored by Tambora all the way over in Norway:

    TheScream

    • #17
  18. Fredösphere Member
    Fredösphere
    @Fredosphere

    To answer your question, I’d like to believe the slow collapse of the union movement and the current education-industrial complex just might defund the left and lead to a shift of U.S. politics rightward.

    • #18
  19. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    anonymous:The greatest “unknown unknowns” are, of course, those which remain unknown.

    But the biggest known risk to our technological civilisation is a solar flare or EMP attack which takes down the power grid. We discussed this on last Sunday’s EAMU. Here is an article in two parts which discusses the risk, mitigation strategies, and their cost.

    I and my coworker, both physicists, did an EMP back-of-the-envelope calculation and came up with wholly unimpressive numbers at reasonably close distances.

    Where did we go wrong?

    • #19
  20. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    What were the casualties at Waterloo? 50,000? Maybe a fifth of that dead? Of course Napoleon was a far bigger worry than this volcanic eruption business. That’s why Lord Wellington led that damned army to war at Waterloo. The only reason Napoleon was not a bigger problem was that war.

    Also, if you want to talk about sheer destruction of resources & people, Napoleon beats your volcano without trying. I’m not sure that you could not find a real example to prove your point, but this one seems remarkably silly-

    • #20
  21. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Mike H:

    anonymous:The greatest “unknown unknowns” are, of course, those which remain unknown.

    But the biggest known risk to our technological civilisation is a solar flare or EMP attack which takes down the power grid. We discussed this on last Sunday’s EAMU. Here is an article in two parts which discusses the risk, mitigation strategies, and their cost.

    I and my coworker, both physicists, did an EMP back-of-the-envelope calculation and came up with wholly unimpressive numbers at reasonably close distances.

    Where did we go wrong?

    Did you calculate the current which is induced in high and extra-high voltage transmission lines correctly?  The autotransformers in these transmission systems are not designed to handle these induced currents and their cores would melt, crippling the power grid.

    Given that the lead time on a single-phase 500 kV autotransformer is probably over a year (or a three-phase 345 kV) we’d be looking at several major urban centers being out of power for a considerable amount of time.

    • #21
  22. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Titus Techera:What were the casualties at Waterloo? 50,000? Maybe a fifth of that dead? Of course Napoleon was a far bigger worry than this volcanic eruption business. That’s why Lord Wellington led that damned army to war at Waterloo. The only reason Napoleon was not a bigger problem was that war.

    Also, if you want to talk about sheer destruction of resources & people, Napoleon beats your volcano without trying. I’m not sure that you could not find a real example to prove your point, but this one seems remarkably silly-

    My suspicion is that the casualties were probably much higher than that, as most of the dead lived in remote areas and were simply wiped out by the tsunami wave, with nobody left to report their passing.  This is similar to the Krakatoa eruption – which was much smaller, but which had significant secondary and tertiary effects, including the incitement of an Islamist revolt in Indonesia which ultimately drove the colonial Dutch out.

    • #22
  23. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Majestyk:

    Mike H:

    anonymous:The greatest “unknown unknowns” are, of course, those which remain unknown.

    But the biggest known risk to our technological civilisation is a solar flare or EMP attack which takes down the power grid. We discussed this on last Sunday’s EAMU. Here is an article in two parts which discusses the risk, mitigation strategies, and their cost.

    I and my coworker, both physicists, did an EMP back-of-the-envelope calculation and came up with wholly unimpressive numbers at reasonably close distances.

    Where did we go wrong?

    Did you calculate the current which is induced in high and extra-high voltage transmission lines correctly? The autotransformers in these transmission systems are not designed to handle these induced currents and their cores would melt, crippling the power grid.

    Given that the lead time on a single-phase 500 kV autotransformer is probably over a year (or a three-phase 345 kV) we’d be looking at several major urban centers being out of power for a considerable amount of time.

    No, we looked at planes being affected and determined they’d have to be quite close in order to have a reasonable chance to fall out of the sky. How close would an average strength EMP need to be in order to melt autotransformers? 1/r^2 is a rapid drop.

    • #23
  24. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Majestyk:

    Titus Techera:What were the casualties at Waterloo? 50,000? Maybe a fifth of that dead? Of course Napoleon was a far bigger worry than this volcanic eruption business. That’s why Lord Wellington led that damned army to war at Waterloo. The only reason Napoleon was not a bigger problem was that war.

    Also, if you want to talk about sheer destruction of resources & people, Napoleon beats your volcano without trying. I’m not sure that you could not find a real example to prove your point, but this one seems remarkably silly-

    My suspicion is that the casualties were probably much higher than that, as most of the dead lived in remote areas and were simply wiped out by the tsunami wave, with nobody left to report their passing. This is similar to the Krakatoa eruption – which was much smaller, but which had significant secondary and tertiary effects, including the incitement of an Islamist revolt in Indonesia which ultimately drove the colonial Dutch out.

    Good point. Still, the career of Napoleon was far more destructive than any such event–even the famous Lisbon earthquake. Can you think of any natural catastrophe that wreaked quite that kind of destruction?

    There is something strange here–Napoleon waged war for twenty years, not the duration of an eruption, but I did not choose the comparison…

    • #24
  25. Devereaux Inactive
    Devereaux
    @Devereaux

    ?So why were there not all these nasty electrical results of all the nuke air tests that were done back in the 50-60’s.

    • #25
  26. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore
    @Eeyore

    Mike H:

    I and my coworker, both physicists, did an EMP back-of-the-envelope calculation and came up with wholly unimpressive numbers at reasonably close distances.

    Where did we go wrong?

    I read (some of) the 200-page 2008 EMP Commission Report, and I was fairy impressed. Later, I read some discussions on practicalities.

    For instance, If O’Hare ices over, air transportation is affected nationwide for a prolonged period of time. Now consider that freight rail transportation for the nation’s massive just-in-time delivery system is all computer controlled.

    rail control

    Although the track switching control systems are in metal boxes which are naturally EMP resistant, the on-track sensors contain SCADA (described in the Commission Report) which are sensitive to EMP. If I were Iran, I would simultaneously explode one EMP somewhere west of DC, affecting at least Boston to Atlanta and one somewhere east of Frisco, affecting at least Seattle to San Diego.

    Now, even if the computer communications weren’t down, much of the actual switching would involve a train stopping and the switch change executed at each connection and likely reported by radio. And if the computer connections were down…

    Now, consider these sorts of bottlenecks across all work environments.

    • #26
  27. Eeyore Member
    Eeyore
    @Eeyore

    Devereaux:?So why were there not all these nasty electrical results of all the nuke air tests that were done back in the 50-60′s.

    It’s all line-of-sight, and dey was way out in de desert. Earth curvature and all that. And no SCADA (see report).

    (And probably some o’ that ionostratospherological crossframulating JohnWalker smart stuff)

    • #27
  28. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Titus Techera:

    Good point. Still, the career of Napoleon was far more destructive than any such event–even the famous Lisbon earthquake. Can you think of any natural catastrophe that wreaked quite that kind of destruction?

    There is something strange here–Napoleon waged war for twenty years, not the duration of an eruption, but I did not choose the comparison…

    The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami comes immediately to mind.

    The Tunguska event of 1908 would have had similar consequences if it had occurred near any populated area.

    The thing about Napoleon, Hitler, Mao and Stalin is that you can’t take them as one-of events (as you might with Tambora or Krakatoa) and compare them to the raw fury of nature with its ability to to suddenly and violently destroy.  A whole series of events led up to the Eurasian dictators’ ascendancies – events which might have turned out very differently if even one branch in their chains of causality had been different.

    Each of these events in isolation may not have killed as many people as any one of the great dictators’ actions, but imagine if they were stacked on top of one another in a similar fashion as the calamities of the Second World War?  Say, a major west coast earthquake followed by a major volcanic eruption followed by a meteor strike followed by a Carrington-event level Geomagnetic Storm?

    We might look upon those times with fondness by comparison.

    • #28
  29. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Majestyk:The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami comes immediately to mind.

    The Tunguska event of 1908 would have had similar consequences if it had occurred near any populated area.

    Agreed.

    The thing about Napoleon, Hitler, Mao and Stalin is that you can’t take them as one-of events (as you might with Tambora or Krakatoa) and compare them to the raw fury of nature with its ability to to suddenly and violently destroy. A whole series of events led up to the Eurasian dictators’ ascendancies – events which might have turned out very differently if even one branch in their chains of causality had been different.

    Well, yeah, but that’s not what’s at stake here. The question is, what should we fear reasonably? I’m not big on this unknown unknown talk. I think it is arrogant & silly. I’d rather people focus on the things which we can reasonably ascertain–the Napoleons, not the eruptions.

    I suppose modern science is such that people can deal with eruptions & let the world or politicians know should they learn something alarming. But as a matter of outlook, human things are far & away more important.

    What is most consequential is something else again–surely, at any time some thing might happen which wipes out humanity. But that is beyond our concern, for the most part.

    • #29
  30. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    The trouble with multilayered political catastrophes such as the issue with the Dictators is that they are just as difficult to unwind as they are to construct – or even to predict that they would have been as large a problem as they were years in advance.

    A major asteroid strike (like Apophis) would have catastrophic effects for probably every person on the planet either directly or in a secondary fashion.  I do think that this is something which is becoming possible for us to prevent and we should be thinking about how to stop something like that.

    If you look around and see that the Iranian Mullahs are getting a nuclear bomb you’d notice that they weren’t as much of a problem until they possessed technology which could mimic the effects of a natural disaster.  Preventing them from achieving that ability is also within our power, but our current political leadership is either feckless, naive or unwilling to do something about it.

    • #30

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