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Photo: Volcano Discovery

I love stories about volcanoes that change the flow of history. The really big ones, you know, darken the skies for months — even years — and disrupt the sea like a tsunami.

As Katherine Kornei reports at the New York Times, there are other effects that researchers are just beginning to discover.

“Chaos and conflict roiled the Mediterranean in the first century B.C.,” she reports. “Against a backdrop of famine, disease and the assassinations of Julius Caesar and other political leaders, the Roman Republic collapsed, and the Roman Empire rose in its place. Tumultuous social unrest no doubt contributed to that transition — politics can unhinge a society. But so can something arguably more powerful.

Scientists [in June] announced evidence that a volcanic eruption in the remote Aleutian Islands, 6,000 miles away from the Italian peninsula, contributed to the demise of the Roman Republic.

“That eruption — and others before it and since — played a role in changing the course of history.

“In recent years, geoscientists, historians and archaeologists have joined forces to investigate the societal impacts of large volcanic eruptions. They rely on an amalgam of records — including ice cores, historical chronicles and climate modeling — to pinpoint how volcanism affected civilizations ranging from the Roman Republic to Ptolemaic Egypt to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

“There’s nuance to this kind of work, said Joseph Manning, a historian at Yale University who has studied the falls of Egyptian dynasties. ‘It’s not “a volcano erupts and a society goes to hell.” ‘ But the challenge is worth it, he said. ‘We hope in the end that we get better history out of it, but also a better understanding of what’s happening to the Earth right now.’ …

“Joseph McConnell, a climate scientist at the [Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.], and his collaborators are in the business of looking for debris [from long ago eruptions]. …

“Volcanic ash, more generally known as tephra, sometimes hides in ice. It’s a special find because it can be geochemically tied to a specific volcano. … The ice also carries a time stamp. Dr. McConnell and his colleagues look for variations in elements like sodium, which is found in sea spray that’s seasonally blown inland. By simply counting annual variations in these elements, it’s possible to trace the passage of time, Dr. McConnell said. ‘It’s like a tree-ring record.’

“Dr. McConnell and his collaborators recently analyzed six ice cores drilled in the Arctic. In layers of ice corresponding to the early months of 43 B.C., they spotted large upticks in sulfur and, crucially, bits of material that were probably tephra. The timing caught the scientists’ attention. Researchers have previously hypothesized that an environmental trigger may have helped set in motion the crop failures, famines and social unrest that plagued the Mediterranean region at that time. …

“Gill Plunkett, a paleoecologist at Queen’s University Belfast, set out sleuthing. After extracting 35 pieces of tephra from the ice, she pored over the rock chemistry of likely volcanic suspects. Nicaragua’s Apoyeque. Italy’s Mount Etna. Russia’s Shiveluch.

“But it was Okmok, a volcano in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, that turned out to be the best match, at least on paper. Sealing the deal would require testing two tephra samples — one from the ice and one from Okmok — on the same instrument.

“Dr. Plunkett arranged for a tephra handoff at a conference in Dublin. A colleague from the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Kristi Wallace, packed four bags of Okmok tephra in her carry-on luggage. The match was spot on, Dr. Plunkett said. …

“This eruption was one of the largest of the last few millenniums, Dr. McConnell and his collaborators concluded, and the sulfate aerosols it created remained in the stratosphere for several years. These tiny particles are particularly good at reflecting sunlight, which means they can temporarily alter Earth’s climate. …

“There’s good evidence that the Northern Hemisphere was colder than normal around 43 B.C. Trees across Europe grew more slowly that year, and a pine forest in North America experienced an unusually early autumn freeze. Using climate models to simulate the impact of an Okmok eruption, Dr. McConnell and his collaborators estimated that parts of the Mediterranean, roughly 6,000 miles away, would have cooled by as much as 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit. … Rain patterns changed as well — some regions would have been drenched by 400 percent more precipitation than normal, the modeling revealed.

“That climate shock came at precisely the wrong time, Dr. [Jessica Clark, a historian of the Roman Republic at Florida State University] said. ‘This was a period of Mediterranean-wide political, social and economic upheaval.’

“These cold, wet conditions would have almost certainly decimated crops, Dr. McConnell and his colleagues said. Historical records compiled by Roman writers and philosophers note food shortages and famines. … For a society already reeling from the assassination of Julius Caesar the year before, such trying conditions might have exacerbated social unrest, the researchers concluded. They might even have kick-started transfers of political power that led to the rise of the Roman Empire.

“ ‘It’s an incredible coincidence that it happened exactly in the waning years of the Roman Republic when things were falling apart,’ said Dr. McConnell, who published the team’s results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

This was a long, fascinating article. For additional details, including details about the effects of distant volcanic eruptions on the Nile River in Egypt, click here.

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Teenage indigenous rights activist Tokata Iron Eyes stands beside Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in the high school gym in Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. (Fun to see Greta’s father came, too!)

The teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is getting a lot of flack these days from vested interests terrified of her influence, but she shoulders on as new and old climate activists give her encouragement. In this story, indigenous people recognize a girl after their own hearts.

Natasha Rausch Forum News Service reports, “Nearly 500 Indigenous students stood in a circle surrounding two 16-year-old climate activists and their fathers Tuesday morning, Oct. 8, in the Standing Rock High School gym.

“A medicine man blessed the girls — Tokata Iron Eyes and Greta Thunberg — in what’s known as a smudging ceremony. Then, a circle of men played the drum as everyone in the gym slowly turned to face the four sacred directions.

“One of the drummers, Hans Young Bird Bradley, of the Standing Rock Environmental Protection Agency, said the tribe has ‘no choice but to support them, hold them up’ on their mission to spread awareness about climate change.

“ ‘We shouldn’t leave it on the back of two little girls to do this,’ he said. ‘It’s too much weight to carry for them. It should be all of us doing our part.’

“Thunberg … told the crowd of Indigenous students she was honored to be speaking at ‘this symbolic place of resistance’ where just three years earlier thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Though the line was eventually installed, the tribe has continued to fight it in court as others from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have built on momentum from the protest to create a more sustainable future.

“Thunberg met Tokata Iron Eyes — one of the Standing Rock citizens who helped garner support for the Dakota Access oil pipeline protests in 2016 through the Rezpect Our Water campaign — at a September event at George Washington University. …

To see two teenagers take the stage in the Standing Rock High School gym, ‘it’s inspirational,’ said 13-year-old Chante Baker, who sat in the bleachers with her classmates. …

” ‘It took two youth to get us all together,’ said Cody Two Bears, the head of nonprofit Indigenized Energy which opened a solar farm last month near the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. … We all need clean water and clean air and a safe place to call home. As Indigenous people, our culture and way of life is inherently tied to the environment.’

“Tyrel Iron Eyes, a 23-year-old from Standing Rock, said he’s proud of his cousin Tokata, and of Thunberg for getting people to listen to them.

” ‘They inspire,’ he said. ‘And at the end of the day that’s what we need is people to be inspired to make changes in their lives.’

“[Thunberg said,] ‘We need local solutions to this global problem, and of course global solutions as well.’ …

“In a closing ceremony, former Standing Rock Chairman Jay Taken Alive gifted Thunberg with a Lakota name: Maphiyata echiyatan hin win, meaning ‘woman who came from the heavens.’

“ ‘Only somebody like that can wake up the world,’ he said. “We stand with you. We appreciate you. We love you as a relative.’ ” More at the Billings Gazette, here.

And while we’re on the subject of sustainability influencers, you can see they’re having an effect in Europe, where this past summer increasing numbers of people decided to take the train instead of flying. Read about that at the Guardian, here.

By the way, does anyone know how Greta is getting home? She can’t very well take an wind-powered yacht across the Atlantic in winter.

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Photo: KerryCan/Etsy
Online markets like Etsy and Amazon currently rely on fossil fuels for deliveries, which is why Etsy is leading the way in addressing climate effects.

I’m happy to see that more individuals and organizations are taking action against the climate crisis. In this story it’s Etsy, the site where many people sell handcrafts. (I hope you have checked out blogger KerryCan’s gorgeous vintage linens there.)

As Emily Dreyfuss wrote in February at Wired magazine, the online market favored by “indie makers” is working toward a carbon neutral future.

“Tomorrow, all the carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere from US ecommerce deliveries — some 55,000 metric tons of CO2, by one estimate, from trucks and planes shipping packages across the country — will be neutralized.

“It’s all thanks to Etsy, the global online market for indie makers, which is picking up the tab on high-quality carbon offsets for itself as well as its competitors on Thursday. Etsy’s largesse ends after tomorrow, but it will continue to offset its own carbon footprint going forward, becoming the first ecommerce company to completely offset all its emissions generated from shipping.

“Etsy estimates that doing so will cost less than a penny per package — less than $1 million for the year. The company made more than $200 million in just the last quarter of 2018. The price of covering the industry’s emissions for one day won’t even reach six figures.

“ ‘It’s a pretty trivial cost,’ says Etsy CEO Josh Silverman, who joined the company in 2017 and has been credited with turning around its fortunes. Before he joined, the company’s sales seemed poised to be gobbled up by Amazon. Though Amazon has only continued to dominate — accounting for almost 50 percent of total online sales last year, by one estimate — Etsy has regained its foothold on the craft market. …

“Silverman sees tackling sustainability as core to his stewardship of the brand. Ecommerce has come under scrutiny for its environmental consequences, but Silverman believes Etsy sellers and customers are eager to minimize their harm to the planet. …

“If every ecommerce company offset its emissions, it would make a difference. Transportation is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency — more than electricity or industry. …

“If Amazon wanted to offset its shipping emissions now, some back-of-the-envelope math using available numbers suggests how much it might cost. The company says it shipped over 5 billion items using Amazon Prime in 2017. Amazon Prime, with its free two-day delivery, has been accused of having a larger environmental impact, since the expedited time frame can make bundling items in the same package or delivery vehicle less practical. If each of those items was shipped separately, and if I borrow from Etsy’s calculation that it costs less than a penny per package to offset emissions, then it would cost Amazon less than $50 million to offset the emissions of Amazon Prime shipments in a year … less than 5 percent of Amazon’s reported $11.2 billion profit from 2018. …

“While experts agree that carbon offsets are the best option for an organization wanting to take immediate action, they caution that it’s a stopgap measure and not a solution to climate change. ‘Offsets are sort of second best because, essentially, what it does is allow you to continue emitting, and what we have to actually do is stop emitting,’ says Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, the leading climate change think tank in the US. …

“Etsy knows this. According to Mozen and Silverman, the company’s goal is to eventually cut down on actual emissions. … Today it becomes the first ecommerce company to offer its customers the promise that packages delivered from Etsy are not hurting Earth. It’s a pretty good start.”

Until Amazon gets serious about its impact on the climate, maybe you’d rather find what you’re looking for at Etsy. Read more at Wired, here.

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