Earth Week Celebration

Earth WeekEarth Week Celebration
Remarks delivered at Old Brick on April 19, 2014
Iowa City, Iowa

If you haven’t seen the buffalo at Yellowstone National Park, you should. One gets a sense of possibilities that existed on the plains as the herds wander and belch their way back and forth inside the park. There is space for them to seem vast, even if they are a fraction of what they once were. The herds will never return to the great plains, but to see the bison at Yellowstone made the trip for me.

If you are on the Internet at all, you have likely heard of the YouTube videos showing buffalo exiting Yellowstone. The assertion is that the giant caldera that makes the park unique is getting ready to erupt in a cataclysmic explosion that portends the end of life as we know it.  Scientists don’t agree. Yes, Yellowstone is a big volcano. Yes, it last erupted over 600,000 years ago. But no, a new eruption isn’t overdue because science doesn’t work like that, despite the activities of bison.

Here’s what does matter. The difference between natural pollution of the atmosphere caused by volcanoes and that caused by humans.

I want to discuss three more things: Mount Tambora, Mount Saint Helens, and nuclear famine.

On April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia produced the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The blast was so loud, it was heard 1,200 miles away in Sumatra. It is estimated that the eruption produced 38 cubic miles of volcanic debris.

While some 12,000 people were killed directly by the eruption, the larger death toll was from starvation and disease, as fallout from the eruption ruined local agricultural productivity, killing another 50,000 people or more.

What made matters worse was the dispersion of ash throughout the atmosphere. It darkened the sky and created climate anomalies including what we call volcanic winter. 1816 became known as the year without a summer because of weather. Crops and livestock died in much of the Northern Hemisphere, resulting in the worst famine in the 19th century.

While nowhere nearly as bad as Mount Tambora, the volcanic eruption on May 18, 1980 at Mount Saint Helens is fixed in memory for people living at the time. It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.

If we compare them, Mount Saint Helens was much smaller than the Mount Tambora eruption. According to the index that measures these things, Mount Tambora was rated 7 while Mount Saint Helens was rated 5. We know about Mount Saint Helens because it is fixed in our memories. We should also remember Mount Tambora as it was more important.

That brings me to nuclear abolition. Recent research has indicated that two billion people may be at risk in a limited, regional nuclear weapons exchange by two of the world’s nuclear states. The reasons are similar to what caused the year without a summer. The firestorm after the exchange would create soot and ash in the atmosphere many times worse than the single year without a summer after Mount Tambora erupted. Simply put, it would be a disaster of unprecedented proportion. One that could happen or be prevented by humans.

The conclusion people should draw is there is no reason for nuclear weapons to exist and they should be abolished.

The next time people on the Internet worrying about the end of civilization as we know it based upon YouTube videos, I recommend you turn off the computer and focus on preventing disasters we can by abolishing nuclear weapons.

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