On October 10, 1465, people were eagerly awaiting the wedding of King Alfonso II of Naples. He was destined to marry the refined Hippolyte Maria Sforza, an aristocrat from Milan, in a magnificent ceremony. When she entered the city, the crowd froze. Before her was a face so strange and beautiful as she had never seen.
Alas, people did not look at the bride – they looked at the sky. Although it was midday, the sun turned blue and plunged the city into an eerie darkness. Solar eclipse? Fancy weather? In the end, the autumn turned out to be wondrous and some talked about a dense, dense fog that rose to the sky.
It was just the beginning. In the following months, the weather in Europe went awry. In Germany, the rain was so intense that corpses were uncovered in the cemeteries. In Poland, city dwellers traveled the streets in boats. The castle cellars of the knights of the Teutonic Order flooded, and entire villages were washed away by streams.
Four years later, a small ice age began in Europe. The fish froze in the ponds. The trees refused to bloom, and the grass did not germinate. In Bologna, Italy, heavy snow made the locals roam along with their horses and cargo along the frozen canals.
The wedding of Alfonso was more unusual than one might have thought. For many thousands of kilometers from it, in the tropics, a giant volcano created a geological history. The eruption was so great that it produced a cloud of ash that enveloped the Earth and led to the coldest decade of many centuries.
The explosion itself could be heard over 2000 kilometers, and with it came the tsunami that destroyed everything for hundreds of kilometers. In terms of scale, it surpassed even the eruption of Tambor in 1815, which released energy equivalent to 2.2 million atomic bombs, and killed at least 70,000 people. Traces of this eruption were found from Antarctica to Greenland.
The problem is that scientists can not find this volcano. How so?
The fact that an “unknown eruption” has occurred is undeniable. Like most mega-eruptions, it evaporated a bunch of rich gray rocks that fell into the atmosphere and settled at the poles in the form of sulfuric acid. There they were stuck in the ice, formed a natural record of geological activity, which swept through the millennia. There is nothing that could do this, even the fall of the asteroid.
But to designate its existence is still the easiest. What scientists do not know is … everything else. This is a real geological riddle, over which geologists have been racking their brains for decades.
It all started with a rumor and a coral fringed island in the South Pacific. Back in the 1950s, archaeologists visited Tonga, Vanuatu and heard stories about an ancient land site that many generations ago linked it to the neighboring island of Epi. It was known as Kuve, and in its center was a gigantic volcano.
If one omits obvious exaggeration like the fact that the supernatural anger of a local resident who was deceived into an incestuous relationship with his mother led to this, the legend boils down to the following. Once, after several strong earthquakes, a catastrophic eruption tore the island into two parts.
Many people fled to the neighboring islands. Most of the survivors died, but among the survivors was a young Ti Tonga Leyseriki, who resettled Tonga and paved the way for new generations.
All that remains of this volcano today is a crater a kilometer deep, hiding beneath the ocean – in the Kuwe caldera – and a thick layer of ash on Epi and Tonga, created by streams of superheated gas and rocks that grew on the island at a speed of hundreds of kilometers per hour .
Scientists did not know about the eruption of the 15th century until the 1980s, until they found a surge in the acidity of these times in cores from polar ice. Unexpectedly for Kuve students, they pointed to something.
The first estimates of the date of the eruption were based on the number of tribal chiefs that ruled since it happened, and placed it between 1540 and 1654. Archaeologists even dated the skeleton of Leycekri, which turned out to be from the 14th to the 15th century. So far, everything went well.
Soon evidence began to appear from other sources. The languages of the islands surrounding the crater showed common linguistic roots, which indicated the exodus from some dialects many hundreds of years ago.
And then in 1993 a scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA became interested in the volcano. Being in the atmosphere, the sprayed sulphates reflect the sunlight back into space. The effect of darkening during the eruption can be so powerful that artificial “volcanoes” were proposed as a way to combat climate change. Therefore, Pang decided to find out exactly when the Kuve eruption took place, studying the global cold snap of that time.
He searched for evidence everywhere, combing ancient records and even looking at rings in portraits in British oak frames in search of slow growth. Pang concluded that the eruption occurred in 1453 – too early to disrupt the wedding of Alfonso, but just at the time to coincide with another particularly deadly year.
In Sweden, the harvest was gone and the granaries were emptied. Throughout Europe, the trees stopped growing. In China, tens of thousands of people have frozen to death. Under the Yangtze River for 40 days, it was snowing non-stop, and the Yellow Sea froze 20 kilometers from the shore. On the other side of the world, the Aztecs faced the largest famine in history.
Pang was so confident in his research that he even proposed the exact date of the eruption – on May 22, when it interrupted the great battle that erupted under Constantinople. The huge “fire” that was set up by the Turkish invaders was just a reflection of the ashes in the twilight.
The final argument came when a team of French geologists visited the island to study it more closely. Based on the size of the crater, they calculated that the Kuve eruption had produced enough magma to fill the Empire State Building 37 million times, and threw debris into 48 kilometers into the sky. Sulphates were three times more than during the eruption in Tambor – more than enough to affect the climate.
What is important, based on the radiocarbon dating of trees that died during the eruption, scientists placed their date between 1420 and 1430 years. Although it did not correspond very well to the splashes in the ice cores, it was still close.
Scientists began to call the eruption of the 15th century “an event in Kuve” – the theory gained momentum. Alas, there was no clarity in it. Ten years after the visit by French geologists of the site of the eruption, other scientists arrived at the crater.
Under the guidance of Karoly Nemeth, an ecologist from the University of Massey in New Zealand, scientists have been looking for signs of an explosive eruption that can change the global climate. They did not find anything.
Giant eruptions rise at least 25 kilometers up – which allows them to throw sulfur directly into the upper atmosphere and scatter the debris over a large area. To find out how impressive the eruption was in Kuwe, the scientists needed to study the fallen ash. “There is no doubt that the volcanic deposits will be, but their extent is not at all what you would expect to find after a massive eruption.”
In fact, the data indicate that the volcano was relatively small, no more than 1000 meters high, which is less than a quarter of the height of Tambora before the eruption. Nemeth concluded that instead of bursting into a single massive explosion, the volcano erupted several times, but less. It was a powerful explosion, as it might seem, but the scientific community simply does not see it.
And then in 2012 in the heart of the ice of Antarctica found a big surprise. The sample was from a place called Law Dome, which is famous for its high snowfall. This is a favorite place for climate researchers, since thick ice makes it easier to distinguish individual annual layers. The group of scientists has made the most accurate record of all the major volcanic eruptions in the last 2000 years.
They found that the 15th century acidity surge in the record was caused not by one eruption, but by two. In addition, the first of them took place in 1458 – much later eruption in Kuve. The authors strongly encouraged others to be cautious about communication. The mystery of the lost volcano is not yet solved. A year later another study confirmed their results.
How could scientists understand all this so wrong?
The whole point is how the ice deposits are dated. They can not provide accurate data, only a sequence of annual events, one after another. To understand when the event occurred – like the “unknown eruption” – frozen records are completed with historical information, like reports on the climatic chaos of 1453.
“This is in some way an incredible closed argument,” says Nemeth. The eruption was believed to have occurred in 1453, because it was then that the planet cooled down and because at that time an eruption occurred in Kuve … and so on and so forth.
In the end, the only evidence linking all three together remains indirect. “It all depends on a misinterpretation of historical information,” says Martin Bauh, historian at the University of Leipzig in Germany, who researched evidence of a global cooling in 1465.
When evidence of an “unknown eruption” was found in ice, people planned to find this place, so when the eruption was confirmed at Kuve, all the points were brought together. “It was not accidental,” says Nemeth.
But if there were no eruptions on Kuve, what happened?
In order to influence the whole world, these eruptions were to occur in the tropics. Because over the tropics the rising air can lift the volcanic cloud higher into the atmosphere, from where it will crumble for many years. The wreckage and dust also spread to a wide area, because strong winds will pull them from the equator to the poles.
“If you look at the map, it’s a gigantic area – and it’s hundreds of volcanoes in the Pacific region,” says Nemeth. Other scientists suggest looking at island arcs, including remote parts of Indonesia, Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.
Since Tambora (responsible for the eruption of a similar size) was a height of 4300 meters before the eruption, it will be necessary to look for volcanoes of even greater height. For obvious reasons, the culprits probably sank under the water for a long time. The riddle of the eruptions of the 15th century is still far from being resolved.
And what about the cooling in 1465? Be that as it may, it is only five years from one of the alleged eruption dates (1460). Hardly this proof will be convincing, but it will come down. Who knows, maybe the eruption of the volcano deprived Alfonso of the glory she deserved.