The Volcano That Changed the Climate

By April 1815, Napoleon had escaped from Elba the month before and began his 100-day rule of Paris.  The Handel & Haydn Society of Boston had been founded.  The Battle of New Orleans had ended.  The World’s first commercial cheese factory  was established in Switzerland, On April 5, 1815  the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history shook the planet in a catastrophe so vast that 200 years later we are still feeling its effects.

In Indonesia, (was the Dutch Indies at the time) Mount Tambora erupted.  Tens of thousands of people were killed by the flying rocks or burned to death. Those who were able to survive the initial blast starved to death because the ash was so heavy it smother the crops. A giant cloud of tiny particles spread around the globe, blocking the sunlight and causing three years of planetary cooling. The cooling resulted in a blizzard that slammed New York a year later, in 1816. Killer frost in New England ravaged farms. Hailstones pounded London all summer long. 1816 became known as the year without a summer.  All because of one Volcano.

Photo STS047-0071-0083 of Tambora from the Space Shuttle.

Photo STS047-0071-0083 of Tambora from the Space Shuttle.

It was not just a volcano eruption though. Those who lived on its slopes considered Tambora home to the Gods. Small villages were on it slope. Farmers grew rice, peppers, and coffee. On April 5, 1815, flames shot from its summit and the earth rumbled for hours. Then it stopped. The volcano was silent. For five days.  Then the peak exploded in a roar of fire, rock, and boiling ash. The explosion was heard hundreds of miles away.  Rivers of lava ran down the slopes destroying the forest and the villages. Days later, till rumbling, but now hollow, the mountain collapsed.  It was suddenly a mile shorter than before.

“Everywhere,” Dr. Wood said, “the volcanic winds blew hard.”

Mt. St. Helen

Mt. St. Helen

The blast, 100 times bigger than Mt. St. Helen’s, and had effects all over the world and for centuries afterwards.  It was scientists who pieced it all together, the link between volcanism and icy weather. . Their original goal was to separate natural climate fluctuations from those of human origins.  Study after study came back to New England and its frigid summer of 1816.

The book “Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World,” by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, outline the global effects of the explosion. Some 12 cubic miles of the height of more the exploding mountain heaved some12 cubic miles of earth some 25 miles into the air. The coarse particles soon were brought back to earth during rains, but the finer ones traveled the high winds in a large spreading cloud.

“It passed,” Dr. Wood wrote, “across both south and north poles, leaving a telltale sulfate imprint on the ice for paleo climatologists to discover more than a century and a half later.”

The global veil of particles reflected much of the sunlight back into space. Therefore, the planet cooled. Computers models and history



books spoke of the fierce storms as well. The particles created awesome sunsets some of which were painted by J.M.W. turner. Blizzards drove Mary Shelley, then 18,  Percy Shelley, her future husband, as well as Lord Byron, inside where soon the tale of Frankenstein and his monster was born. Lord Byron came up with the modern Vampire tale with his The Vampyre and his poen the Darkness.   It ws not all good.  In Switzerland, famine was rampant.  A Cholera epidemic in India killed tens of millions of people was due to monsoonal changes and pounding rains. The epidemic spread and eventually killed more people than the volcano had.  China experienced famine and huge blizzards.  The U.S. also experiences crop failures and unprecedented blizzards.  Thomas Jefferson himself, was effected and worried about thefuture of Monticello farm

“If the seasons should, against the course of nature hitherto observed, continue constantly hostile to our agriculture.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

The Tambora incident has scientists struggling to comprehend the climatological past of our planet but the future likelihood.  Volcanologist at the University of Cambridge, Clive Oppenheimer, studied the tambura Catastrophe. He put the chance of a similar explosion in the next half-century as low. Maybe 10%.  Yet the consequences should one occur could run extraordinarily high.

“The modern world,” Dr. Oppenheimer said, “is far from immune to the potentially catastrophic impacts.”

images (1)

 Dr. Wood noted that the victims of Tambora’s fury were oblivious to the volcanic root of the circumstances. “More generally”, he said, “the revelation of global volcanic ruin — a portrait 200 years in the making — offers a kind of meditation on the difficulty of uncovering the subtle effects of climate change, whether its origins lie in nature’s fury or the invisible byproducts of human civilization.”

It is, Dr. Wood remarked, “hard to see and no less difficult to imagine.



3 thoughts on “The Volcano That Changed the Climate”

Comments are closed.