Ecosystems damaged by distal volcanic ash and sulfur deposition usually recover within decades. However, sediment, stalagmite, and pollen records from the southernmost Andes indicate a 2000 yr impact on forest and aquatic ecosystems after deposition of a thin tephra layer. SO2 released from altering pumice produced intense soil and lake acidification in a >150,000 km2 area. Acidification led to nutrient leaching and affected soil microorganisms, causing plant decay and increased soil erosion in an area larger than 8000 km2. We conclude that weakly buffered soils in humid environments are extremely vulnerable to volcanic and anthropogenic acidification, causing long-lasting ecosystem damage and perturbations of paleoclimate proxy records.