On 19 February 1600, the Huaynaputina volcano in southern Peru had the biggest eruption in the recorded history of South America. The eruption column was 32 kilometers tall, and an estimated 13 cubic kilometers of magma were released.
A multidisciplinary team recently published a study in Quaternary Research supporting the idea that a year after the Huaynaputina eruption, its climate effects led to global cooling and catastrophic crop failures in northern Europe. In turn, these food shortages contributed to the Great Famine that killed a third of the Russian population.
Sediment Cores from an Arctic Archipelago
In 2015 and 2017, a group of students, doctoral candidates, and professors from different disciplines participated in an expedition to Russia’s Novaya Zemlya archipelago, one of the least explored regions in the Arctic and one that can be accessed only by ship.
The expedition collected sediment samples from seven fjords in the archipelago. All teams had access to a workstation and laboratory on board the R/V Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, where the samples were cut in half lengthwise. One half was saved for scanning at an onshore laboratory, whereas the other half was analyzed on board the ship for factors such as grain size, mineralogy, chemistry, and biology, explained Valeriy Rusakov, lead author of the study and a geologist at the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Scientists on the 2017 expedition study sediment cores from Novaya Zemlya. Credit: Valeriy Rusakov
In analyzing core samples dating to the 17th century, the team found a sharp decrease in sedimentation rates, finer grain composition, and smaller biogenic remains of marine organisms. These results suggest a sudden onset of colder weather.
Global Cooling in Historical Records
The team studied historical documents as well as scientific samples. They found that the “drastic decrease in sedimentation in the fjords” in Novaya Zemlya coincided with written records of both the 1600 Huaynaputina eruption and extreme cold weather around the world, from crop failures in northern Europe to a 2-week change in blossoming peach trees in China.
This cooling “led to the Great Famine of 1601–1603, which led to the change of ruling dynasties in Russia,” said Rusakov. (The dynasty that emerged, the Romanovs, led Russia until 1917.)
“Historical reconstructions of unrecognized climatic processes can be extremely important for understanding the role of the nonhuman world in human affairs.”
Heli Huhtamaa, an assistant professor at the University of Bern, Switzerland, was not involved with the new research but concurs with its general findings. According to her, the Huaynaputina volcanic eruption is considered to be the most likely culprit of the cold weather experienced in 1601 because the eruption released high quantities of sulfur to the atmosphere. These volcanic gases, which damage foliage and discourage plant growth, took as long as a year to reach northern Europe.
The “coolness of the  summer was a result of these volcanic aerosols high in the stratosphere…and that led to extreme harvest loss,” said Huhtamaa. As an example of that loss, she pointed to church records from the municipality of Pöytyä, Finland, which document that of the 142.7 barrels of rye seeds that were sowed in 1601, only 1 barrel was able to be harvested. (A barrel is equivalent to about 146.5 liters.)
“Historical reconstructions of unrecognized climatic processes can be extremely important for understanding the role of the nonhuman world in human affairs,” said Andy Bruno, an environmental historian and professor at Northern Illinois University. But he warns that we should be wary of “claims that reduce any complicated historical event to a sole climate trigger.”
The eruption of Huaynaputina and shifts in glacial dynamics in the Arctic played a role in the Great Famine in Russia, Bruno said, but were far from the only factor. The extended crop failures exacerbated an ongoing political and social conflict known as the Time of Troubles, which lasted until the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613.
For Jersy Mariño, research that explores the connection between the Huaynaputina eruption and historical events from around the world is essential for recognizing the “cultural and geological value” of this volcano and the importance of studying it. Mariño is a geologist from the Peruvian Geological, Mining, and Metallurgical Institute who has conducted extensive research on the geological history and risk posed by this and other volcanoes in southern Peru.
During a recent expedition to Huaynaputina, Mariño and his team found evidence of six towns and several terraces used for agriculture in the 17th century that were completely buried during the 1600 eruption. (The volcano has not erupted since.)
In Peru, the eruption of the Huaynaputina volcano destroyed nearby agricultural terraces like this one. Credit: Jersy Mariño
The scientists recommended that the Peruvian government start archeological expeditions as soon as possible.
—Santiago Flórez (@rflorezsantiago), Science Writer
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