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Tambora: the Eruption that Changed the World.

Gillen D'Arcy Wood


Most have heard of the Battle of Waterloo, but who has heard of the volcano called Tambora? No school textbook I've seen mentions that only two months before Napoleon's final defeat in 1815, the faraway Indonesian island of Sumbawa was the site of the most devastating volcanic eruption on Earth in thousands of years.

The death toll was around 100,000 people from the thick pyroclastic flows of lava; the tsunami that struck nearby coasts; and the thick ash that blanketed Southeast Asia's farmlands, destroyed crops, and plunged it into darkness for a week. Both events - Napoleon's defeat and the eruption - had monumental impacts on human history. But while a library of scholarship has been devoted to Napoleon's undoing at Waterloo, the scattered writings on Tambora would scarcely fill your in-tray.

This extraordinary geological event took place 199 years ago today, and, on the cusp of its bicentenary, Tambora is finally getting its due. With the help of modern scientific instruments and old-fashioned archival detective work, the Tambora April 9, 1815 eruption can be conclusively placed among the greatest environmental disasters ever to befall mankind. The floods, droughts, starvation, and disease in the three years following the eruption stem from the volcano's effects on weather systems, so Tambora stands today as a harrowing case study of what the human costs and global reach might be from runaway climate change.

Tambora's greatest claim to infamy lies not in the direct impact it had on what was then the Dutch East Indies (which was terrible enough), but its indirect effects on the disease ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The enormous cloud of sulfate gases Tambora ejected into the atmosphere slowed the development of the Indian monsoon, the world's largest weather system, for the following two years.

Drought brought on by the eruption devastated crop yields across the Indian subcontinent, but more disastrously gave rise to a new and deadly strain of cholera. Cholera had always been endemic to Bengal, but the bizarre weather of 1816–17 triggered by Tambora's eruption - first drought, then late, unseasonal flooding - altered the microbial ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The cholera bacterium, which has an unusually adaptive genetic structure highly sensitive to changes in its aquatic environment, mutated into a new strain. This was met with no resistance among the local population, and it spread across Asia and eventually the globe. By century's end, the death toll from Bengal cholera stood in the tens of millions.

Just as the biological disaster known as the Black Death defined the 14th century in Europe and the Near East, so cholera shaped the 19th century like no other calamity. Much of our medical science, and our modern public health institutions, originate in the Victorian-era battle against cholera. But only now, thanks to renewed scientific interest in the relation between cholera and climate change, can we make the connection between the worldwide cholera epidemic originating in 1817 and Tambora's eruption thousands of miles away.

Tambora's ripple effects were felt across the globe. In southwest China, the outlying mountainous province of Yunnan suffered terribly from the cold volcanic weather, losing crop after crop of rice to bitter winds and flooding rains. The situation was so extreme that desperate Yunnanese resorted to eating white clay, while parents sold their children in the town markets or killed them out of mercy.

In the aftermath of this three-year famine, Yunnan farmers turned to a more reliable cash crop - opium - to ensure their families' survival against future disasters. Within a few decades, opium was being grown all across Yunnan, while opium-processing technology and expertise drifted south into the remote mountains of modern-day Burma and Laos. The 'golden triangle' of international opium production was born.

If the Tambora disaster persists in cultural memory at all, it is as the 'Year Without a Summer,' 1816, the most notorious and best chronicled extreme weather event of that century. Snowstorms swept the East Coast of the United States in June, ensuring the shortest growing season on record. Crowds of desperate and hungry rural folk from Maine and Vermont fled snowfalls of up to 18 inches to the western frontier, which had been spared the worst of Tambora's weather.

Here grain harvests were fetching sky-high prices on the famine-struck Atlantic market, but after the boom came a shattering bust - the so-called Panic of 1819 - which triggered the first sustained economic depression in U.S. history. East Coast speculators had invested hugely in western agriculture post-1816, only to lose their shirts when the similarly-affected European grain markets returned to normal in 1819 and commodity prices plummeted. 'Never were such hard times,' wrote Thomas Jefferson of ordinary Americans who, across the country, found themselves in a condition of unparalleled distress, persisting well into the 1820s.

As it turns out, however, the indirect ripple effects of Tambora - what climate scientists call 'teleconnections' - were even more historically significant. Cholera, opium, and the Panic of 1819 are three examples; another is Arctic exploration.

One of the paradoxical effects of a major tropical eruption is that while the planet in general is cooled by the blanket of volcanic dust that drifts from the equator to the poles, the Arctic itself is drastically warmed owing to changes in wind circulation and north Atlantic ocean currents. This anomaly was discovered only after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the tropical Philippines, the first observed with the benefit of modern climatological instruments.

In 1817 and 1818, the British Admiralty began to receive exciting reports from whaling captains of a remarkable loss of sea ice around Greenland. Huge icebergs from a broken icepack were spotted floating as far south as Ireland and New York. The prospect of a northwest passage for shipping to the East - a holy grail England had sought since Elizabethan times - beckoned once more. With a generation's naval captains still hungry for glory but now languishing onshore after the defeat of Napoleon, the Admiralty launched an expensive and ultimately disastrous 50-year-long campaign to chart the elusive northwest passage.

The British could not have known then, of course, that Tambora had caused the Arctic to melt, and that the climatic impacts of a tropical eruption persist for no longer than three years. The Arctic refroze just in time for the arrival of Britain's first polar expedition under Captain John Ross in 1818. Years of fruitless, icebound sallies into the polar seas culminated in the tragic Franklin expedition of the 1840s, when all hands were lost, and the heroic age of British Arctic exploration came to an end.

It is time to recognize Tambora as the Napoleon of eruptions. The implications - for historians - of a revised, volcanic 19th century are immense. As with the global cholera epidemic, and the growth of a Chinese opium empire, Victorian-era polar exploration might not have happened at all, or would have evolved in an entirely different direction, had it not been for Tambora's climate-wrecking detonation in 1815.

For two long centuries, the connections between this major volcanic disaster and human history have been obscured by two factors: the limitations of scientific knowledge, and by our narrow, anthropocentric vision that seeks out only human causes for human events, neglecting the influence of environmental change. Now, in the 21st century, as we begin to appreciate more profoundly the interdependence of human and natural systems, the lesson of a 200-year-old climate emergency may finally be learned: A changing climate changes everything.

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(Daily Beast)

If you think this winter was unseasonably long and cold, you're playing history's tiniest violin.

Instead, with a year without summer, famines on multiples continents, an explosion in the Chinese opium trade, the global scourge of cholera, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a golden age of Arctic exploration, and modern meteorology on its resume, that distinction belongs to Tambora and its eruption in 1815 on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia.

That story, and its portentous lessons on the consequences of global climate disturbances, is told with particular elan and a flair for the dramatic in Gillen D'Arcy Wood's Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World.

'I realized that there was this massive ecological event that occurred right in the middle of my [academic] period, which hadn't really been fully discussed or fully explored by anyone,' Wood said in an interview with The Daily Beast. 'I think I set out to write the book I couldn't find.'

It turns out that Wood, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was sitting in a climatology class at the university, and kept hearing about the eruption of Tambora, which was twice the size of Krakatau in magnitude - a major ecological disaster right in the heart of his scholarly area - Romantic and other early 19th century literature.

'And so, as the Greeks say, shame is a very productive emotion,' he says, and he was galvanized to give this major historical event its due. Whatever his motivation, Wood uncovers for the reader the worldwide reaches of the eruption, and makes it a watershed date in the timeline of human history.

He begins in the place where devastation was most immediate - the island of Sumbawa and the surrounding region. When the volcano blew its top, thousands perished, immolated by fire, boiling magma, and ash. In the surrounding region, a deluge of ash fell for two straight days in a 600-kilometer radius, hitting islands like Borneo, Java, and Bali (which was covered in ash half-a-meter deep), and destroying food and water supplies. Parents by the thousands were forced to sell themselves or their children for rice. Perhaps even more tragic, notes Hall, was the number of parents who resorted to killing their children and dumping them on the beaches rather than sell their progeny or watch them starve.

However, the pall cast by Tambora's ashes would cover more than just the islands surrounding the volcano. After its eruption knocked off roughly 4,000 feet from its height, the multitudes of sulfate aerosols filling the air almost exactly two centuries ago entered the Earth's atmosphere, cooling temperatures to record lows in parts of China and the eastern United States, wreaking havoc on traditional weather systems such as the monsoons in India, and in a quirk of fate, melting some of the polar ice. While his book does not make it around the world in 80 days, Hall covers much of the earth in tracing the volcano's effects.

The reach of these climate shifts are at the heart of Wood's book - which attempts to serve as a prophetic cry about what happens when the earth's weather is messed with (he will likely be as unpopular as the biblical prophets in some quarters).

In a bit of morbid voyeurism, what happens as a result of those changes in climate, the 'you've been warned' sections, are some of the juicy parts of the book. Thomas Jefferson, always on the precipice of financial instability, was brought to ruin after his wheat crops were destroyed by the record cold wrought by Tambora, which occurred at the same time as the panic of 1819 - among the causes of that panic was the sudden recovery of European agriculture after the Tambora hangover.

Don't be surprised to find yourself skimming ahead to the juicy stories describing the personal journeys of those swept up in the event.

The worldwide cholera epidemic of the early 1800s kicked off in the Bengal delta after volcanic aerosols triggered a three-year disruption of South Asia's life-giving monsoon.

Or, take for instance, Ireland's forgotten famine of 1816-1818. Rain and snow fell ceaselessly in July 1816, destroying the country's crops and hurling its people into starvation. On the heels of famine came an epidemic of typhus, during which Anglo-Irish overlords managed to plumb new depths of inhumanity in a society already sunk in it.

Much like the case of Jared Diamond, who came to write about evolutionary biology despite his background researching gall bladder secretion, part of the value of Hunt's writing is his background.

'It was certainly a new frontier for me. The task I set myself was to read the scientific literature, and to understand as best I could the physical processes behind the eruption,' says Wood.

The science included in Tambora is the required reading, but informative as it may be, don't be surprised to find yourself skimming ahead to the juicy stories in which Wood describes personal journeys of those swept up in the event. His book is a veritable who's who of the 19th century: Thomas Mellon, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Louis Agassiz, Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Comte de Buffon, Warren Hastings, John Keats, Lord Byron, Stamford Raffles, William Carleton, Samuel Coleridge, and Ignace Venetz make cameo appearances as Wood illustrates the impact Tambora had on their lives and work.

In the cases of Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, and friend Lord Byron, the widespread climate impact of Tambora and the fearsome weather it triggered in Switzerland provided the inspiration for Byron's Child Harolde's Pilgrimage, Percy Shelley's Mont Blanc, and of course, Mary's Frankenstein. After surviving storms in Switzerland, the group of friends would be devastated by the scourge of cholera that made its way from India through Europe.

The benefit of having an expert in the humanities as a guide becomes clear when Wood writes passionately about the poetry of Li Yuyang in the Yunnan province. Yuyang's poetry rendered in traumatic prose the sorrow of a proud state now starving. Unable to feed itself, farmers in the Yunnan would turn to opium production, radically transforming the region to what Wood calls, 'a rogue narco-state in thrall to the international drug trade.'

'I think it was at that moment that I realized I had a book on my hands,' says Wood. 'The Tambora warming of the poles was connected to the sudden flurry in expeditions that you get in the late eighteen-teens.'

Wood is talking about one of the great ironies of Tambora's historic footprint. Although much of the global destruction the volcano wrought through its effect on climate has not been thoroughly explored, one effect that has been documented is the melting of the Arctic ice cap. As a result, the British clamored to explore the north, rekindling that long-held dream of finding a Northwest Passage. This urging for exploration was led by Sir John Barrow of the British Admiralty, who Wood believes was behind an 1817 Royal Society memo detailing the warming of the ice cap. That memo, apparently, has become a smoking gun for climate change deniers, who point to the time period as evidence of natural variability in climate.

The part they miss is that the warming, tied to the volcanic phosphates, was fleeting. No doubt Sir John Franklin, who came to be known as The Man Who Ate His Boots, and his doomed 1845 Arctic expedition team would have loved to have known just how fleeting before they ran into a land of ice where a few years before there had been open sea.

The book is full of quirks of history. For instance, Stamford Raffles, whose History of Java was one of the first and most prominent books of Southeast Asian historiography, had his hopes for a prosperous colony in Java destroyed by Tambora and its aftereffect, and would then go on to found a new colony in Singapore in 1819. He is also the founder of the London Zoo.

Tambora also triggered a contagion of end-of-times fever, most notably the Bologna Prophecy, which involved an astronomer outdoing Harold Camping by declaring the world would end on July 18, 1816. His prophecy kicked off a vertiginous frenzy of doomsaying, and he was thrown in jail by fearful Bolognese officials. Alas, as Wood points out, the fever had spread all over Europe. In Ghent, three-quarters of the population reportedly mistook some regimental music for the call of the Day of Judgment and went running out in the street. The Queen of Sweden led 6,000 peasants to prayer at a cathedral for deliverance.

While the book is meant to serve as a wake-up call for the societal nastiness that awaits a changed global climate (and it strains in parts to do so), amid all the doom and gloom, Hall does highlight some of humanity's resiliency. Nation-states began moving towards systems for dealing with health and food crises, the widespread loss in livestock prompted a German to create the ancestor of the bicycle, and modern meteorology was developed. That resiliency is what some who oppose climate change legislation point to, arguing that humans can innovate their way out of any disaster that ensues.

'I think those who say that, 'Oh yes, we can rely on innovation' - hope is not a strategy,' counters Wood emphatically.

Besides, the price tag for that motivation—famine, disease, Harold Camping's everywhere - is surely too steep.


FOR most of history, volcanoes embodied the capacity of the natural world to wreak havoc on human societies. Recently though, global warming—invisible, subtle, the very opposite of volcanoes - has displaced them as the incarnation of environmental threat. Two recent books that show the influence of Vulcan’s children may reinstate volcanoes in the pantheon of climate problems.

The first, 'Island on Fire', looks at the extraordinary eruption of Laki, in Iceland, 230 years ago. The archetypical volcano blows the top off a mountain and spews lava for a few weeks. This one consists of a great rent in the ground, 30km long, and in June 1783 it yawned and stayed open for more than eight months, producing enough lava to bury Manhattan to the top of the Rockefeller Centre (pictured). Laki was the first eruption to be written about in the diaries, newspapers and scientific papers that were then spreading fast among the newly literate classes of Europe. Gilbert White, an English naturalist, wrote about 'the peculiar haze, or smoky fog…unlike anything known within the memory of man'. And Benjamin Franklin, in Paris to negotiate the treaty ending America's war of independence, speculated that the exceptionally cold winter of 1783-84 might be connected with 'the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing to issue during the summer from Hekla' (Iceland's most notorious volcano). Franklin was among the first to link volcanic activity and climate change. The most remarkable character in the story of Laki's eruption is Jon Steingrimsson, a Lutheran pastor working locally. He nursed his congregation through the famine that followed the eruption when three-quarters of Iceland's sheep died after ingesting the fluorine that poured out of the volcano. Steingrimsson left the most detailed eyewitness account of any eruption up to that time, in which he describes the falling ash being 'as long and thick as a seal's hair', while gouts of molten lava splash on the earth 'like cowpats'. The eruption in 1815 at Tambora, east of Bali, left no such eyewitnesses. But the eruption, which reduced the height of the Tambora mountain by over a kilometre, left its mark in indirect ways. Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', for example, was written while she was stuck indoors during the coldest and wettest Geneva summer on record, a result of the cooling effect that Tambora had round the world. Gillen D'Arcy Wood, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, traces the eruption's influence in the agricultural disaster that overwhelmed Yunnan province in south-west China from 1815 to 1818 and led famine-stricken farmers to adopt the most profitable crop then available - opium - giving the drug a toehold in Chinese society decades before the opium wars. He argues that Tambora disrupted the South Asian monsoon, producing both famine in Bengal and a new, more virulent strain of cholera, which led to a worldwide cholera pandemic in the early 1830s. (Another novel by Mary Shelley, 'The Last Man', about a plague-ridden world, is a response to the disease.) Mr Wood also dates Britain's futile 100-year obsession with a north-west passage from Europe to Asia via the Arctic to the temporary melting of Arctic ice that can accompany tropical volcanic eruptions. And he says Tambora contributed to the first great depression in America when east-coast farmers, struggling during the year they called 'eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death', headed to the Appalachians, and saw their livelihoods destroyed again when European wheat harvests rebounded but those in America did not. The stories of Tambora and Laki are not only about disaster. The eruptions sparked the first sustained interest in climate science. After Tambora, for example, Heinrich Brandes, a mathematics professor in Breslau, produced the world's first weather map. But the overwhelming impression from these books - the one on Tambora a history, that on Laki also a work of vulcanology - is that volcanoes have brought regional disaster, with global effects. The world experiences such massive eruptions about twice a century. The impact of volcanoes is not confined just to the past.

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