Research Press Release

Geoscience: Chinese dynastic collapses linked to volcanic eruptions

Communications Earth & Environment

November 12, 2021

Volcanic eruptions may have caused abrupt climate changes that contributed to the collapse of many Chinese ruling dynasties over the past 2,000 years, according to an article published online in Communications Earth & Environment. The findings suggest that major eruptions can profoundly impact unstable or vulnerable regions.

In the pre-industrial period, volcanic eruptions were a key cause of sudden changes in the climate, often leading to cooler and drier growing seasons and reducing agricultural productivity. The collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907 C.E. and the Ming Dynasty in 1644 C.E. have both previously been linked to episodes of drought and cold. Nevertheless, the impacts of abrupt, short-term climate fluctuations on societal collapses have been difficult to establish, as records of both climate and societal change are not often sufficiently well dated.

Francis Ludlow and colleagues compiled the dates of dynasty collapses in China over the past 2,000 years, and compared these to reconstructions of volcanic eruptions. They found that at least one volcanic eruption preceded 62 of the 68 identified collapses. Pre-existing societal stress, such as ongoing warfare, and large eruptions were found to increase the risk of dynastic collapse. However, the severity of societal impacts and length of time between eruption and collapse were found to vary, highlighting the complexity of the underlying causes.


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