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Look away now: The prophecies of Nostradamus

If you like your prophecies pin sharp and “on the ball” then look away now. The 16th century celebrity seer Nostradamus excelled at the exact opposite, couching his predictions in terms so vague as to be largely meaningless or so open as to invite almost any interpretation. This has not, however, prevented his soothsayings attracting enormous and unending interest, and his book – Les Propheties – has rarely been out of print since it was first published 460 years ago. Uniquely, for a renaissance augur, the writings of Nostradamus are perhaps as popular today as they were four and a half centuries ago, and rarely a month goes by without one or other of his portents of doom attracting the attention of the tabloid press. While Nostradamus made all sorts of predictions in his treatises and annual almanacs, some trivial, others relating to major world events, those that continue to excite are the ones that appear to prophecy global catastrophe and the end of days. Embraced by the swivel-eyed conspiracists, and others of that ilk and eschewed by the rational and scientifically literate, there is one thing that we can all be sure of. As these spoutings almost invariably have no date attached, one or other of them is bound to come true, given enough time. Certainly, our planet and our civilisation is constantly under threat, on the one hand from nuclear calamity, and on the other by any one of a small portfolio of what I call Global Geophysical Events (GGEs), or “gee-gees.”

The latest anniversary of Les Propheties seems, therefore, like a good time to revisit the big geophysical threats that face our world and our society, especially as it coincides with the bicentennial of perhaps the greatest volcanic eruption since the ice retreated 10,000 years ago. A couple of months before the Battle of Waterloo – yet another key event commemorated this year – the previously innocuous Indonesia volcano, Tambora, blew itself apart in a cataclysmic explosion that took around 70,000 lives on Sumbawa and neighbouring islands in the Java Sea. As far as I am aware, this is an event that seems to have escaped Nostradamus’ future scanning, which – given the huge impact it had on western civilisation – is one in the eye for those who, today, still pore over his every word.

As the estimated 60 million tonnes of sulphur gas, pumped out by the eruption infiltrated the stratosphere to form a veil of tiny aerosol particles that blocked out much of the Sun’s heat, so the global climate took a turn for the worse. As a consequence, 1816 is earmarked in the historical record as the Year Without a Summer; plunging temperatures bringing killing summer frosts and a devastated harvest across Europe and eastern North America. While Tambora’s brilliant volcanic sunsets have been charged by some with inspiring the flamboyant skies of some of J. M. W Turner’s later works, the appalling weather of 1816 supposedly set the tone for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Sunset after a tornado in Oklahoma.
“Sunset after a tornado in Oklahoma”, by tpsdave. Public domain via Pixabay.

The impact of the eruption on the average European citizen, however, was far less frivolous. In what economic historian, John Post, has called ‘the last great subsistence crisis in the western world’, tens of thousands succumbed to famine and disease, as bread riots and civil stife stalked the European continent. In Ireland alone, typhus and other ailments are estimated to have claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Fortunately, eruptions on the scale of Tambora are rare, but not so rare that we can safely dismiss them in terms of offering a significant future threat. One estimate is that there is a 1 in 10 chance of a Tambora-scale event in the next 50 years, but the Earth does not operate to a timetable so the next Tambora could blow at any time. Certainly there are a few candidates around that are currently focusing the minds of volcanologists. Of particular note is Chile’s Laguna Del Maule volcano, which is swelling at the astonishing rate of 25cm a year, above a massive body of magma lying just 6km beneath the surface. Not too far away, in neighbouring Bolivia, the restless Uturunca volcano is also causing some concern. Here a 70km-wide bulge that has been growing since the early 1990s could culminate in a gigantic eruption.

It would be easy to dismiss any major impact of such threats on today’s society, arguing that modern farming methods, distribution systems and globalisation, would make it much easier to handle widespread harvest failures than in 1816. This would also, however, be a dangerously complacent attitude, and an equally valid case could be made for the very interconnectedness of world markets making things worse; the collapse of food production across Europe, parts of North America and perhaps elsewhere, resulting in global shortages that drive massive hikes in the cost of food commodities. At the same time, the intense worldwide competition for food supplies slashed as a consequence of the harvest failures could drastically reduce the range of products available, interfere with supply and distribution, and bring about a collapse of the ultra-sensitive, time-critical, stock control systems operated by supermarkets, leaving their shelves increasingly depleted. While the less well off could be priced out of purchasing even staple foodstuffs, panic buying by those who can afford it could quickly empty the stores.

Tornado on the horizon.
“Tornado on the horizon”, by skeeze. Public domain via Pixabay.

Another Tambora would undoubtedly, then, not be good news, but there are far worse threats waiting in the wings. Wearing my Nostradamus hat, therefore, let me conclude with my top five “gee-gees”. All are extremely unlikely to happen in any single year, but in the longer term all are 100 percent certain. Be afraid, be very (all right, just a little bit) afraid!

  1. Volcanic super-eruption. Could it be Yellowstone, one of the currently restless South American volcanoes, or an innocuous volcano we are not watching? Super-eruptions happen, on average, every 50 millennia or so, giving human lifetime odds of around 700 to 1.
  2. A potentially global-economy shattering earthquake striking one of the world’s three (London, New York, Tokyo) financial command and control centres. You know who you are Tokyo! Probability of occurrence in a human lifetime (three score years and ten): virtually.
  3. Climate change. It’s here; it’s happening now. We are currently on course for a 4°C+ global average temperature rise by the century’s end, which translates to double figure rises at high latitudes, where most of the world’s ice resides. Whatever we do, we are already committed to a 5m+ rise in sea level; sufficient to swamp all the world’s coastal cities.
  4. An ocean-wide megatsunami. The next giant landslide at one of the Hawaiian or Canary Island volcanoes could swamp the coastlines of – respectively – the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. Human lifetime odds are 150 to 1.
  5. While we have spotted 872 of the 1km+ diameter Near Earth Asteroids that present a potential threat to our civilisation, there are still at least a few hundred out there that could strike with little or no warning. The human lifetime odds of an impact by an object large enough to cause global mayhem show how unlikely this is, at around 8,500 to 1.

Featured image credit: “Lightening storm”, by osgoodcs0. Public domain via Pixabay.

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