Episode 333. Volcanoes, Climate and Cows

This is The ChangeUnderground for the 17th of April 2023.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

Food and soil health are intricately linked and the health of one directly impacts the health of the other. Soil is the foundation of our food system. The top six inches of the landmass and the fact it rains semi-regularly is what keeps us alive. 

The key words there are “semi-regularly”. Since the Holocene, 12-10,000 years before present, there has been climate variability but within fairly, relatively speaking, narrow extremes. For most of that time, human population levels were such that our impact was far less than it is today. 

I’ve been listening to Peter Frankopan’s latest book: The Earth Transformed, An Untold Story. Maybe to Peter but this work is the latest in a longline of such books. The point is I’ve noticed the effects of both humans and tectonic events on human societies. And by extension, the environs upon which they are located. He also works in ocean temperature variations, El Nino/La Nina and North Atlantic Oscillations and so on. The point being we have been, as a species, affected by changes in the planet’s longer term and short term, too, cycles. Things like rainfall are dependent upon ocean temperatures in the shortish term and by the rise and fall of mountain ranges in the longer term. 

The rise of cities during the Bronze Age in different parts of the world at different times increased the ability to gather food and other resources but also placed a larger number of individuals at risk from disasters. Now that could be marauding armies, diseases, floods, soil collapse and so on. The events that seem to have had the most deleterious effects on humans and their associated livestock and plant resources were connected with a sudden drop in temperatures. The sudden drop in temperatures and “missing” summers. 1816 was one such year. The Year without Summer, link in the show notes. This was felt in Western Europe, Canada, China, India. This was the result, it seems, from the eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia. It started rumbling in 1812 and blew on the 15th of July 1815 about four weeks after the Battle of Waterloo.

The effect of this eruption was to produce a volcanic winter. Lots of dust and rock debris and particulates in the atmosphere blocking sunlight from reaching the crops or anything else for that matter. Starvation, disease and so on. The temperature is believed to have dropped between 0.4-0.7 degrees C.

An earlier event, 536 c.e. lingered on until 547, is believed to have resulted in a similar effect as the missing summer of 1816 but was augmented by further sizable volcanic eruptions in 540 and 547 as well as the original in 536. These had the combined effect of lowering temperatures by about 2.7 degrees C.

Apart from the asteroid visited upon the dinosaurs, there’s been four other mass extinction events, the current one we’re living through excepted. 

So, to lower temperatures long enough for an electrification of the economy and to do so with carbon neutral sources we probably need, that’s a very strong word, we probably could make use of a series of volcanic eruptions. Or even a small asteroid impact. This latter idea does not fill me with hope. Neither for that matter does the former but the former is more likely, I suspect. In the meantime electrification with non-carbon power sources is an imperative.

While the big picture points to us over shooting 1.5 and to be blatantly frank, 2 degrees C too, the horrors of industrial agriculture continue to blossom, well, expand.

From the VOX website dated, 14 April 2023, comes a terrifying post entitled: A fire killed 18,000 cows in Texas. It’s a horrifyingly normal disaster.   


An explosion and fire at a dairy farm on Monday in the Texas panhandle has been called the deadliest cattle barn fire ever recorded: it left one worker in critical condition and killed 18,000 cows.

The cause of the fire, which occurred at South Fork Dairy Farm in Dimmitt, 75 miles northwest of Lubbock, is still under investigation by the state fire marshal. In an interview with a local news station, Castro County Sheriff Sal Rivera said it may have been caused by the facility’s manure management equipment. “It is possible that it overheated and the methane and things like that might have ignited and spread out with an explosion and a fire,” he said.

End Quote

That’s correct, you heard that number correctly, 18,000 cows, incinerated. It’s not surprising there was a huge methane bubble with that much manure. That’s 810 cubic metres per day or nearly 10,000 gallons per day. This is a process for concentrating nutrients, removing some as milk and body heat and dropping the rest out the back end as manure. The energy involved to bring sufficient feed to these beasts and then remove their wastes in mind boggling. The animal cruelty is beyond words before they were incinerated.

But wait, the point of the article is that this sort of fire and burnt offering on the alter no holds barred liaise faire capitalism is not that unusual. 6.5 million farmed animals have been reported as burnt alive in the last decade in the US alone and the article suggests this is an under reporting. Most we chickens but suffering is suffering.

What has become of us as a species that we condone this sort of suffering, let alone waste of resources and degradation of soils to ensure a less expensive meat product. And we are talking meat products not whole animals. The carcasses of these unfortunate factory farmed animals are nothing more than widgets in the food production systems of the world. I’m beyond white hot anger over this. If you’d like to be even more appalled, read the article but be warned the images are very disquietening. 

As I’ve been arguing for basically all of the 7 years, 2 and a half months of this podcast, we need to end factory farms, we need to get livestock back on the soils they co-evolved with and we needed to do this fifty years ago but today is the next best option. If you are fortunate enough to live in a democracy, annoy the living daylights out of your elected representatives. Regulation is all that keeps liaise faire attitudes and actions in check. The article points out that because these are animal facilities, their is no requirement in many US states for fire alarms nor sprinkler systems. Now the market should correct for this but clearly it is not. Make enough noise to frighten the bejebus of the companies running these obscene enterprises.

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back, all things being equal, next week.



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Year Without a Summer


A fire killed 18,000 cows in Texas. It’s a horrifyingly normal disaster.


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