Two hundred years ago, today, began the single most violent and explosive volcanic eruption ever to occur on this planet in recorded history. Though this volcano erupted halfway around the world from Great Britain, and few there were aware of the event, in the years that followed, this eruption would have disastrous effects on the climate of not only the British Isles, but all the way round the globe, for a period of over three years. Beyond the immediate physical horror wrought by the actual eruption, and the climatic devastation which followed, this event would also be responsible for a pair of fictional horrors which are with us to this day.
When Mount Tambora blew its top and changed the world . . .
The great mountain known as Tambora stood on the island of Sumbawa, part of the Sunda Island chain in Indonesia, which lies within the Pacific Ring of Fire. In early April of 1815, at over 14,100 feet, Mount Tambora was the tallest peak in the archipelago. Residents of Sumbawa at the turn of the nineteenth century had no idea the great mountain on their island was a volcano, as it had not erupted for several centuries. During that time, tons of molten rock was building up inside the magma chamber, exerting increasing pressure. A brief initial eruption occurred in 1812, the result of which was a deep rumbling followed by a plume of dark smoke.
The mountain went silent again for three years, until early April of 1815. On 5 April, there was a strong eruption, and the following morning, a veil of volcanic ash began to fall over East Java. The mountain continued to emit intermittent explosive sounds over the course of the next few days. All of that was only a precursor to the main event. At about 7 o’clock in the evening of Monday, 10 April 1815, thunderous explosions came from the mountain, as three huge plumes of flame rose from the mountain peak to merge into an enormous column of fire which could been seen for miles as darkness fell. The intense pressure which had been building inside the magma chamber for centuries ripped the mountain apart as it ran red with molten rock all through the night. The explosive eruption was at least four times greater than that of Krakatoa and is estimated to have resulted in a pyroclastic ejection of more than thirty-eight cubic miles of pumice and volcanic ash. When it was over, at least 4,200 feet of height was ripped away from the mountain peak.
The explosive sounds of the eruption could be heard at a distance of over a thousand miles. Some Royal Navy ships cruising in the area assumed pirates were attacking one of the islands in the archipelago and tried to locate the supposed battle. The military commander of the city of Djokjakarta assumed a neighboring village was under attack and ordered his troops to march in the direction of the explosion in order to repel invaders. Over eight hundred miles away, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British Lieutenant-Governor of Java, at his residence in Batavia, heard the sounds of the eruption. But since he had been informed of the eruption which had occurred five days earlier, he retired for the night with little concern. Only to awake in darkness the next morning, even though it was well past eight o’clock. His garden was knee-deep in volcanic ash and he had to light candles in the middle of the day to find his way through his home.
A powerful tsunami hit Java about midnight on 10 April, and earth tremors shuddered through the entire archipelago for another eighteen hours. The village of Tambora, on the slope of the mountain, was obliterated in an instant, while many other villages and towns in an extended area were decimated. The beautiful, natural harbor of Bima, west of Tambora, was clogged with masses of black pumice stone, hundreds of burnt and shattered tree trunks, as well as the hulls of several sunken ships which had been thrown up by the sea. It is estimated that between 10,000 to 12,000 people were killed outright by the eruption itself. Many more perished in the days and weeks that followed of starvation and disease brought on by water poisoned with acidic volcanic ash.
Unlike the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, which ejected most of its pyroclastic flow horizontally, Mount Tambora erupted almost completely vertically, and with such intense force that much of the pumice, ash and gases were sent high into the stratosphere. The heaviest components of this massive volcanic cloud soon fell back to earth, covering both land and sea in several feet of rock and ash. Crops in the fields were beaten down and covered so deeply they were smothered, denying food to tens of thousands of starving people. The light pumice and its accompanying ash did not sink when they came down into the seas. Instead, they floated, creating huge dark islands which were seen floating throughout the Indian Ocean for at least three years. Many of these "volcanic islands" were so vast that they were a serious hazard to navigation in the area, even to the largest ships.
However, the greater global devastation which the Mount Tambora eruption would cause ultimately came from the gases and the lightest particles which were thrown up into the stratosphere. There, the volcanic sulfur dioxide was converted to sulfuric acid in aerosol form, which drifted in the stratosphere for over three years, spreading further and further around the globe with the prevailing winds. This veil of aerosolized sulfuric acid and ash interfered with solar radiation, thus cooling the atmosphere below even as the stratosphere warmed. For the next three years, the world climate was drastically altered by the volcanic veil which Tambora had thrown into the stratosphere. The normally temperate zones of the middle latitudes were colder and subject to extended periods of rain and snow into the summer months while the far north and south latitudes experienced steadily increasing temperatures.
Most Regency scholars are familiar with the dire circumstances of 1816, which became known as the "Year Without a Summer" in Europe, and "Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death" on the eastern seaboard of the United States. But what many do no realize is that the climate change wrought by the eruption of Mount Tambora continued well into 1818. It took that long for the volcanic ash and aerosols to finally be washed out of the stratosphere and through the atmosphere. Though it was not known until the 1960s, the Mount Tambora eruption only compounded the effects of another powerful volcanic eruption which took place in 1809. This first volcano is still known simply as the 1809 Unknown, since its location and exact date of eruption remain unknown to this day. But proof of its eruption was discovered in the 1960s when scientists began studying ice cores taken from Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic Circle. Due in large part to the 1809 Unknown eruption and that of Mount Tambora, the decade of 1810 to 1820 was the coldest of the entire nineteenth century.
Epidemics of both cholera and typhus can be traced back to the Mount Tambora eruption. The cholera epidemic began in India in early 1816, where a strain of waterborne cholera was first exposed to humans in the Bay of Bengal. This more virulent strain of cholera spread slowly north and east, devastating the populations of the areas through which it traveled, finally reaching England in 1831. The cold and wet climate in Ireland devastated the vital potato crop, weakening a large part of the population by both hunger and cold. Many of those people became susceptible to typhus and were unable to fight off the parasite which would ultimately kill them.
Though crops failed across much of Europe and the eastern United States, the climate change also made possible bumper crops in central Russia and the Midwestern United States. As crops continued to fail year after year, many people living in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states sold up and moved west. They forced the Native Americans off their traditional lands, causing great hardship to many of these tribes. However, these new arrivals were very successful growing crops on their new land. And, with the high demand for this food by those living in areas where crops had failed for years, they could demand high prices. But in 1819, with the atmosphere finally clear of the remnants of Tambora’s eruption, those places were the crops had failed for three years were suddenly bringing in bumper crops. Which caused the bottom to fall out of the grain markets in both the American Mid-West and Russia, thereby causing severe depressions in those areas for several years.
Another result of the Tambora eruption was the warming of the Earth at the poles. This caused the ice to recede significantly from the ports of Greenland and extensive shrinking of the polar ice cap. Huge ice floes began breaking free and drifting south into the sea lanes of the Atlantic, disrupting shipping. Many of those who studied weather blamed these enormous ice floes for the reduced temperatures in Europe and America. Whalers and other vessels which traveled north in the period of 1816 to 1818, found few, if any whales, which caused a severe down-turn in that industry. Many of these reports came to the attention of the Second Secretary to the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, who had his own agenda to advance the glory of the Royal Navy in the wake of the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Barrow decided that Britain should be the first to discover, and claim, the Northwest Passage over the North Pole to the Far East.
Few in Britain knew of the eruption of Mount Tambora during the Regency and none of them ascribed the extreme climate change to that natural disaster, certainly not Sir John Barrow. Based on the multiple reports he had received about the shrinking polar cap and the open Arctic Sea, he came to the conclusion that the climate there was warming and would continue to do so. It took Barrow a couple of years to put together an expedition to explore the Northwest Passage, and by the time it sailed, in 1818, the climatic effect of Tambora had been cleaned from the atmosphere and the polar ice cap was rapidly increasing. That first expedition was unable to find any passage through the once-again frozen Arctic. Convinced the captain of the first expedition had not tried hard enough, Barrow organized a follow-up expedition for the summer of the following year. The 1819 expedition lead by Captain William Parry actually wintered over in the Arctic and did bring some of the glory to the Royal Navy which Barrow sought, even though they were not able to find the Northwest Passage. Barrow also arranged the first Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin, exploring northern Canada by way of the Coppermine River, from 1819 – 1822. Though many men died during that expedition, Franklin himself survived, only to die with all his men during a later attempt to locate the Northwest Passage in the 1840s.
The climate changes cause by Tambora were the most noticeable in terms of color in 1816. There were many snowstorms in Europe and Great Britain which dropped snow which was red, yellow or brown. This was due to the fact that the flakes included tiny bits of volcanic ash. Though there were still extended snow storms right through 1818, the snow that fell after 1816 was more likely to be closer to white than the flakes which came down that first year after the Tambora eruption. But it was not just the snow that changed color. For at least two years after the eruption, the skies were often colored in a range of reds to oranges to yellows. In England, both John Constable and J. M. W. Turner painted a number of landscapes which included these unnaturally colored skies, as did several painters across Europe in those years. It is believed these painters painted what they saw, and today, scientists are studying these paintings and are able to determine the temperature and other climatic conditions based on the sky colors used in those paintings.
Travelling on the Continent had become very popular in 1816, when the threat posed by Napoleon was finally over. However, few of those travelers enjoyed their journeys under the cold, wet and dreary weather conditions brought on by the Tambora eruption. The area of the Alps became treacherous for travel due to the much colder temperatures which kept snow in the mountain passes and increased the size of the glaciers which covered the slopes. One group of English travellers found themselves house-bound in June of 1816 due to the intense and violent storms which came through the Alps that year, one after another. These travellers were so bored that they eagerly accepted the invitation of their friend, the poet, Lord Byron, to join him in the villa he had rented near Lake Geneva. Byron’s guests at the Villa Diodati were Mary Godwin, her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont. Byron had his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, living at the villa with him.
During three days of incessant cold rain, the group at the Villa Diodati first amused themselves by reading a French translation of German ghost stories. But once they had exhausted those stories and the cold rain continued to fall, the authors in the group challenged each other to write their own stories. Doctor Polidori, wishing to take part, expanded upon a fragment of a story by Byron, calling his story The Vampyre. It was first published in 1819, with Byron given as the author, but eventually was published under Polidori’s own name. This story laid the foundation for what was to become the romantic vampire genre which would remain popular through the nineteenth century right up to the present day.
However, the story which was written by Mary Godwin Shelley was most heavily influenced by the weather which had kept the author indoors that cold and wet June. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was the story of a creature assembled and given life by Dr. Frankenstein. Though the process is not described in the original story, it is known that Mary and her fellow authors, possibly inspired by the tremendous thunderstorms in the area, discussed the power of galvanism by way of electricity. Ironically, Mary Shelley began and ended her story in the frozen Arctic, at a time when the global climatic changes were warming the poles while cooling the temperate zones. But vast sheets of ice were almost literally under Mary’s feet, as the alpine glaciers were rapidly expanding in that summer after Tambora and she had them for her model of a frozen north. Frankenstein was published anonymously, in 1818, and did well enough to merit another edition in 1822. That second edition was published under the name of the true author, and this classic horror story has never been out of print since.
The cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora in April of 1815 was a global disaster on a scale which was incomprehensible to those living at the time. It has only been in recent years that scientists have been able to piece together the full story, based on the physical evidence of the effect it had on the planet, coupled with the contemporary reports of the time which have survived. However, even though no one living at the time was aware of the full scope of the devastaion wrought by that eruption, nearly everyone on the planet suffered in some way from the climate changes which stemmed from the eruption of Mount Tambora.
For more detail on the eruption and the events that followed:
Klingman, William K. and Nicholas P. Klingman, The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.
Stommel, Henry and Elizabeth, Volcano Weather: The Story of 1819, The Year Without a Summer. Newport, R. I.: Seven Seas Press, 1983.
Wood, Gillen D’Arcy, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World. Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 2014.