How volcanoes change the world | Interview with Dr. Clive Oppenheimer

We met with Dr. Clive Oppenheimer to discuss the historical impact of volcanic eruptions, tree rings, his latest projects, and much more. Enjoy!

How volcanoes change the world | Interview with Dr. Clive Oppenheimer
"It's always a question within historical interpretation of looking at everything and not just coming up with an environmentally determinist scenario."” – Dr. Clive Oppenheimer

Noted volcanologist Dr. Clive Oppenheimer examines the climate effects of volcanoes, especially with respect to geoengineering and climate change. He also explores the social and historical impact of volcanic eruptions, the use of tree rings for climatological studies, and his documentary films with acclaimed director Werner Herzog, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (2020) and Into the Inferno (2016). Professor of volcanology in the University of Cambridge’s department of geography, Dr. Oppenheimer talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Earth Scientist, Dr. Clive Oppenheimer

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:14Volcanic eruptions

Jed Macosko: Hi. I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. Today we have a guest coming all the way from England, Professor Clive Oppenheimer at Cambridge University. And Professor Oppenheimer, I’m curious, as a volcanologist, how does your work impact our knowledge and study of global warming and climate change?

Clive Oppenheimer: One of the ways that it is relevant is because volcanoes are one of the main ways, the main causes of natural variability of climate on Earth. We see this with very large eruptions, particularly large explosive eruptions that emit a lot of sulfur gas into the stratosphere, this ends up forming little particles that reflect some sunlight back into space and lead to a cooling at the Earth surface. And so when we look at climate today, when we look at the climate of the past, we need to factor in volcanic eruptions as one of the key sources of variability.

And one of the outcomes of that is that we can compare climate model outputs with observations, and this becomes a very powerful way to understand how well climate models are working. Because if you cannot match the two, if you can’t, if your models are not reproducing the climate change that you’re observing, then you know that there is some process that you’re still not understanding. There’s a kind of spin-off here as well, I think, relevant to ideas of geoengineering, and particularly the kind of geoengineering that’s called solar resource management. This is an idea to combat global warming by effectively recreating what volcanoes do naturally.

And again, I think what we’ve understood from studies of volcanic eruptions of the past, this gives us some idea, not only whether this would work or not, but also whether or not it could be a bad idea.

Jed: Well, do you think it might be a bad idea? It seems like whenever humans try to get in and muck up the system, it doesn’t always go like we planned.

Clive: Yeah. No, we’ve got a pretty good track record, I think, for messing up. And yes, I think the... I mean, now we’re kind of into the realm of adaptation in some ways, whether we like it or not. But I’m not convinced about this whole idea of stratospheric geoengineering because we know from volcanic eruptions that there can be unwanted... There could be unwanted side effects, one of them is suppression of precipitation. Okay, there might be parts of the world where you could do with a bit less rain, but in many parts of the world, for example, in Asia, where there’s huge reliance on the Asian monsoon for rice production, this is something you don’t want to mess with without a real understanding of what the consequences could be.

Jed: Yes, and it seems like once you’ve started this type of geoengineering, there’s no turning back. It’s not like you can turn off the switch and make everything back to normal, so you would very much recommend not trying this, at least in the near future?

Clive: I wouldn’t pontificate on the subject beyond what I’ve said already, which is, I mean, my voice is not going to make any difference in this, and it’s beyond my real expertise, so I don’t have a real comment beyond that, as to whether it’s a good idea or not.

03:50Social changes

Jed: Well, well, I think it’s a bad idea. [chuckle] It just seems like something we are not quite ready for yet. Now, you’ve studied not only what’s happening in volcanoes today, but also in the past, tell us a little bit about some of the sort of social changes that you’ve researched and found out about that have been due to eruptions and the changes in climate in the past.

Clive: So, it’s a very interesting area and effectively, what you’re doing is history and interpreting history. And one of the main things I’ve discovered is doing history is really taking evidence and coming up with the most rational explanation for events that you can. You can never really prove anything. And we can think of even recent examples in modern times. I’ll give you an example, the food crisis in 2008 has been argued as a trigger for the Arab Spring. Okay, you can make arguments why this is rational, but you can’t prove it. So, if we go even further back in time and say this volcanic eruption led to the big demographic change in Europe, people migrating to the Americas, people migrating from east to west across North America.

You really need to put this in a much wider historical context of what’s going on socially, economically, politically. I think one of the best examples is the 1815 eruption of Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, one of the largest eruptions in history. And this put so much sulfur into the atmosphere, it did have a profound impact on climate. We do have hard economic data for grain prices in Europe, in North America, and we can see that these go up quite dramatically in the few years after the eruption. And there’s a whole chain of events, riots, for example, very close in my home town in Cambridge, and all sorts of other things going on in the world.

But we have to look at that in the context of the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. So, it’s always a question within historical interpretation of looking at everything and not just coming up with an environmentally determinist scenario.

Jed: Have there been changes nowadays that are already due to changing climate? So, we’ve seen temperatures rising, are there any specific social changes that you’ve seen?

Clive: Sorry. Do you mean related to volcanoes or...

Jed: Well, not so much volcanoes, because I’m not sure how much the current pattern of warming is due to volcanoes. It seems like volcanoes cause a cooling, so this would be... No, just more in general, sort of the general weather pattern that we’ve seen over the last 20 years, has it led to any kind of social change?

Clive: Crumbs. I mean, the last 20 years, it seems like the last 200, or the last 1000, lots and lots of conflict, lots and lots of political turmoil. So, I wouldn’t say it’s been a great 20 years in many respects. The bigger picture, we can look at, for example, tree rings, tree rings are one of the best proxies that we have for past climatic variability, going back for certainly a couple of thousand years and potentially further back in time.

And the importance of tree rings is that they can be precisely dated with annual accuracy. And by collating data from a wide area, from parts of North America, Eurasia, you can build up a broader climatological pattern.

And we see back in history, there have been warmer periods, there have been cooler periods, the Little Ice Age being one of them. And in the broad sweep of history, you might start to say, well, these are times of comparative prosperity, these are times of greater political unrest and turbulence, and how these might correlate with climatic factors. But in some ways, I don’t see great differences in the last 20 years, except of course, that we are now the engineers of the climatic change.

08:21Film making

Jed: And that in itself has brought about a lot of conflict between the people who say we need to stop doing what we’re doing, and the people who say we can keep doing what we’re doing. So, in that sense, maybe it’s brought about a bit of social upheaval, but not in the typical sense that you’ve studied in history, so that’s interesting.

Now, as a researcher, where do you see your career and your studies going from this point forward? You mentioned the two areas that you’re most involved in, but where would you like to apply your efforts moving towards the end of your career?

Clive: Well, I’ve become a filmmaker in the last few years, so I’m putting a lot of my energy into that and into writing. So, I want to keep the... Of course, keep the science ticking over, and a lot of that is done by very talented grad students and postdocs, so I’ll ride on their coattails a little bit if I can. Yeah, I certainly hope to throw more of my energies into filmmaking, which I guess is maybe more about public engagement.

Jed: Tell us a little bit about your filmmaking. How did it get started and what have you done with it?

Clive: I’ve made a couple of films with Werner Herzog, who’s a somewhat better filmmaker than I am. We met when he was making a film in Antarctica, where I had worked for a number of years on a volcano called Erebus, that was back in 2006. And we kept in touch. I had always entertained the idea of making a documentary on volcanoes, and ultimately I persuaded Werner to make that with me, so we made a film, Into The Inferno, for Netflix four years ago. And on the back of that, I wanted to make another film and had a number of ideas, but the one that got some traction was to make a film also on a geoscience topic, but beyond my particular expertise, but looking at everything to do with meteorites, shooting stars. And this, both topics bring in what we’ve been discussing, the entanglements between nature and culture.

These are phenomena, if we think about meteorites. These have been venerated, the Black Stone in the carbon in the Grand Mosque in Mecca is probably a meteorite, this is one of the holiest relics in Islam.

So, that’s what we’ve been doing with these two films and what excites me about that and motivates me is not to make a very didactic film, but much more, I’d say, at a more philosophical and artistic and cinematic level to take these topics and look at the possibilities for working out a narrative.

Jed: And does your writing go along with your filmmaking or is it on separate topics and not connected?

"…filmmaking is informing the way I write. I now think more in terms of storytelling and narrative structure when I write, and I think that's something…"” – Dr. Clive Oppenheimer

Clive: It’s loosely interconnected, I’d say. The first film came off the back of a book that I wrote on large eruptions. And I would say it was inspired by the book, it’s not based on the book, but it certainly draws on some of those themes.

I think, actually, one of the things I’ve found lately, having made a couple of films, is that filmmaking is informing the way I write. I now think more in terms of storytelling and narrative structure when I write, and I think that’s something... There definitely is an interface between filmmaking and writing.

12:11Story telling

Jed: And for any budding filmmakers or authors, what would you say you learned about storytelling, what are the key points to know when you’re trying to tell a story?

Clive: I think one of the key points is, as far as possible, don’t be pushed into doing something in a particular format. And I think in many ways, I don’t have a background in fine arts. I’ve never trained in filmmaking, but we all watch movies, we all formulate an opinion of something we’ve just watched immediately.

"We're trained in cinema just through having experienced so much of it."” – Dr. Clive Oppenheimer

We’re trained in cinema just through having experienced so much of it. So, I think take what you like from that and adapt. In terms of storytelling, I think it’s often not going for the obvious. One of the reasons I wanted to make a film about volcanoes is that all the documentaries or most of the documentaries I’ve ever seen are very, very similar, usually the doom and gloom scenario, but knowing the subject, I know that they miss a lot of the nuances and the really exciting research that’s going on.

Jed: So, with your documentary on volcanoes, what routes did you take that were unexpected and lead to people enjoying it on Netflix?

Clive: I had a number of, I suppose, guiding principles. One, I didn’t really want to stick to conventional narratives. I didn’t want to go to places that everybody knew already, Hawaii or Pompeii. So, I wanted to go to some more unusual places. So, we filmed in North Korea. In fact, that was the first place we started filming. We filmed in Ethiopia and Vanuatu, Indonesia and Iceland. I also wanted to weave in my own research. So, all the places we went pretty much are places that I’ve had research over a number of years working with, collaborating with people in those countries.

And I wanted to look not so much of the scientific side of things, but the more anthropological and very much this nexus between human society and culture and natural phenomena. And in the case of volcanoes, very, very awesome phenomena. So, one of the things you discover is that for a tribal chief living on the side of a volcano in Vanuatu, who hasn’t been to university and studied geology. Well, okay, he has a very different explanation for volcanic phenomena, but in many ways, it’s every bit is valid as my explanation based on just the scientific arguments. So, that was part of the narrative, I think, this sort of human, how the human imagination has dealt with volcanism since our earliest days.

15:35Sign off

Jed: Well, that is just fascinating. It definitely makes me want to go watch the movie that you made and look for other ones that you make in the future. So, thank you so much, Professor Oppenheimer, for coming on this program today and for sharing all these interesting things. We really appreciate it.

Clive: My pleasure, Jed, thanks for having me on.