The biggest bang in two thousand years was heard as far as sixteen hundred miles away. It happened in April of 1815, on the island of Sumbawa in the southwest Pacific Ocean, now part of Indonesia. Mount Tambora erupted in an immense volcanic explosion. Seventy-one thousand islanders were killed almost immediately. The big bang began a global cataclysm that sowed the broadest crop of human misery any single earthly event has yielded.
Tambora’s eruption hurled millions of tons of ash and sulfur high into the circulating jet-stream, cooling temperatures around the world. It delayed the monsoon rains that were supposed to sustain crops around the Indian Ocean. Floods followed drought along with a deadly surge in the water-borne disease, cholera: tens of millions died of it all along the Ocean’s shores and as far north as Moscow. As the shroud of ash spread north, China’s rice crop failed in cold weather: more millions died.
The volcano’s effects reached the higher latitudes of Europe in 1816. Crops were killed by hard frosts in spring and summer. The price of oats and wheat tripled, quadrupled. “Bread Riots” swept through the streets of British and European cities as starving farm families crowded the cities, looking for any kind of work.
In North America, hard frosts were recorded in every month of 1816. Late-sown seedling plants were killed as far south as Virginia, where retired President Thomas Jefferson’s crops were destroyed, plunging him into lifelong debt. Snow fell across New England on July 6, 1816, a foot deep in Quebec City, Canada. Steam railroad lines weren’t laid, yet, so grain couldn’t be brought from warmer southern fields. An exodus of failed northern farmers left family homes to populate those milder Midwest prairies. They called this year of famine and disappointment, “Eighteen Hundred and Froze-To-Death.”
While millions of the poor starved, wealthy classes of Europe were merely inconvenienced by Tambora’s weather. A privileged group joined the poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron to “summer” in Switzerland. Storms and cold drove them indoors where they competed to write the best “ghost story.” Percy’s wife Mary Shelley won with Frankenstein. Byron’s personal doctor, John Polidori, also wrote a humdinger: The Vampyre, which was adapted by Bram Stoker decades later as Dracula.
Tambora’s chilling effects lasted only three years. Our own challenge of global warming is building more slowly but could be even more troublesome. Tambora’s big bang taught us that we all share cataclysms and weather, even a world away.
The 1815 Tambora volcano produced an estimated thirty six cubic miles of exploded rock and ash which showered down in varying depths over land as far away as eight hundred miles to the northwest. But it was the debris that the jet stream carried over Asia, Europe and North America that earned 1816 the title "year without a summer." NASA
This photograph depicts the summit caldera of the Mount Tambora volcano more than a hundred years after its massive explosion. A collapse was triggered by the emptying of the magma chamber beneath the volcano as the result of the 1815 eruption. The volcano removed the mountain's estimated thirteen thousand-foot high peak leaving a hollow area 3.7 miles in diameter and thirty-six hundred feet deep. By Tisquesusa via Wikimedia Commons
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