Major eruptions brought about abrupt climate changes. And that may have contributed to the downfall of powerful empires.

In the pre-industrial period, volcanic eruptions were a major cause of sudden changes in climate. It led to cooler and drier growing seasons, which in turn impacted agriculture. The consequences of such large eruptions may extend further than you think. Because in a new study researchers link volcanic eruptions over the past 2,000 years to the demise of some Chinese dynasties.

Volcanic eruptions

We have known for some time that volcanic eruptions can lead to quite a bit of commotion. For example, eruptions are probably partly responsible for a number of mass extinctions from the distant past. When volcanoes erupt, they can pump millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. This creates huge clouds of sulfuric acid that sometimes even block sunlight for several years. This causes the average surface temperature on Earth to plummet. And this climate change could have far-reaching consequences.


What is particularly relevant is that major eruptions can trigger severe cold and drought during the farming season. And that can reduce the yield. In addition, the effects could be exacerbated by livestock deaths, accelerated soil degradation and damage to crops by pests that thrive in the new conditions.

Chinese Dynasties

All in all, these are of course not very good climate conditions. But can they actually shake Chinese dynasties? Researchers now in a new study suggest it does. Using ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, they managed to reconstruct 156 explosive volcanic eruptions that occurred from AD 1 to 1915. In addition, they analyzed historical documents from China written at the time of 68 different dynasties and examined warfare between 850 and 1911.


It leads to an interesting discovery. Because the researchers come to the conclusion that volcanic eruptions caused a sharp drop in temperature during Asian summers. This in turn led to a weaker monsoon and less rain, resulting in smaller harvests. And that cost several Chinese dynasties their heads. “We have confirmed for the first time that collapses of Chinese dynasties over the past 2,000 years are more likely in the years following volcanic eruptions,” said study researcher Alan Robock.


The researchers found that as many as 62 of the 68 collapsed dynasties preceded at least one volcanic eruption. In addition, pre-existing social stress, such as ongoing warfare, can increase the risk. This means that major eruptions could have an unprecedented impact on unstable, or already vulnerable regions. Examples of some of the better-known dynasties likely to have collapsed due to the disastrous effects of volcanic eruptions include the Tang dynasty in 907 and the Ming dynasty in 1644.

“The findings highlight the need to better prepare for future eruptions,” the researchers said. “Especially in regions with economically vulnerable populations (similar to those of the Tang and Ming dynasty).” Although eruptions in more recent history – in the 20th and 21st centuries – have been less extensive than in the centuries before, the researchers suspect that these eruptions also contributed to the Sahel droughts between 1970 and 1990, leading to 250,000 deaths and 10 million refugees. . Future major eruptions, coupled with climate change, are likely to have a major impact on agriculture in some of the Earth’s most populous and most marginalized regions, the study said. And so it is important that we are aware of the dangers in order to deal with them in a timely manner.

Did you know…

… researchers may now be able to predict volcanic eruptions years in advance with the help of satellites? The goal is to one day know very accurately when a volcano is about to erupt. Read more here!