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
Adkins' latest book is about the first drive in an automobile. The wife of the inventor took her kids to see their grandparents. Learn more about it here.
The author/illustrator is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
Nonfiction is the new black
Early in 1980, Mt. St. Helens in southwestern Washington state began showing signs that it was about to erupt. Part of the state’s Cascade Range, the mountain was an active volcano that had been dormant for 123 years.
The possibility of seeing the “fireworks” prompted many people to head for the mountain. The sightseers included Ron and Barbara Seibold and their two children, who parked about 12 miles north of the mountain. That was well beyond two danger zones that scientists had established.
En route to the mountain, the children—Kevin, aged 7, and his 9-year-old sister Michelle—made a cassette tape. They asked questions and the parents answered. “They were goofing around—asking whether or not they would see lava coming out of the mountain,” said a state emergency management official. “One asked if it was dangerous, and both parents cheerfully reassured their kids that they’d be safe.”
Exploding on May 18 with a fury far beyond what scientists had expected, the blast generated the largest landslide in U.S. history and flattened millions of trees. Uncounted tons of ash rose as high as 15 miles into the atmosphere.
The Seibolds never had a chance. Ash almost instantly buried their vehicle. They suffocated.
The eruption claimed 53 more people, making it the deadliest-ever on the US mainland. One was Harry Truman, who had run the inn at nearby Spirit Lake for more than 50 years. Truman had become somewhat of a folk hero for his refusal to move despite the danger.
Twenty-year-old newlyweds Christy and John Killian were camping nine miles from the volcano. Christy died of massive head injuries, her arm around her pet poodle. John and the couple’s retriever were never found.
Terry Crall and Karen Varner, both 21, died when a tree fell onto their tent, 14 miles away. Four people outside the tent were unharmed.
So were researchers Keith and Dorothy Stoffel, flying a small airplane less than 1,300 feet above the summit at the moment of the eruption. A cloud laced with lightning bolts billowed toward them. They managed to outrun it.
Today, much of the vegetation destroyed by the blast has returned. But the mountain—once compared in its graceful contours to Mt. Fuji in Japan—lost 1,300 feet of its height. Its former symmetrical cone shape is now topped by a horseshoe-shaped crater which stands as a mute reminder of the catastrophic eruption.
The top of Mount St. Helens two years after the eruption. The removal of the north side of the mountain reduced St. Helens' height by about 1,300 feet and left a crater 1 mile to 2 miles wide and a half mile deep. The eruption killed 57 people, nearly 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk, and bear), and an estimated 12 million fish from a hatchery. It destroyed or extensively damaged more than 200 homes, 185 miles of highway, and 15 miles of railways.
Volcanoes have been erupting for all of recorded history. More than 3,500 years ago, people on the Greek island of Calliste had a very good life. There was only one problem: Calliste was actually a volcano. Around 1650 BCE, the volcano erupted, blowing out the center of the island and creating a large bay. What was left of Calliste was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash. Though the island was deserted for many years, people eventually returned. Several centuries ago, it was renamed Santorini. The island has reclaimed its beauty and allure, but the volcano below continues to reshape this little plot of land in the Mediterranean Sea. For more information on Jim Whiting's book on the Santorini eruption, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Deadly Eruption of Mount St. Helens." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 5 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Science through the lens
A long time ago in a land far, far away…
The climate suddenly changes. It’s May, and a “Great Fog” appears in the sky. During the day it blocks out the sun and acts like a blanket trapping heat near the ground. A ten-year old boy notices that temperatures spike and sunsets are a spectacular display of colors. He doesn’t know that volcanoes in the “Ring of Fire” are spewing ash into the atmosphere creating massive clouds and causing the strange weather. All he knows is that he can’t take his eyes off the sky. The boy’s name is Luke Howard. The year is 1783, and his location is the English countryside. Luke records his observations in a journal. Although he doesn’t know it yet, he is on his way to becoming the “Father of Meteorology.”
Flash forward twenty years. It’s 1803, and Luke Howard is a successful businessman. But in his spare time, ever since the summer of 1873, he’s been watching the clouds and thinking up new ideas about the weather. He writes and publishes a scientific paper and presents his ideas to a group of fellow amateur scientists. His article, “On the modification of clouds, and on the principles of their production, suspension and destruction,” classifies clouds into groups using Latin words: heaped (cumulus), layered (stratus), fibrous (cirrus), and rain (nimbus). By combining terms into names such as Cirro-cumulus, which he describes as "small, well-defined roundish masses, in close horizontal arrangement," Luke identifies many kinds of clouds.
Luke’s passion for clouds inspires him to make watercolor sketches and write a book called The Climate of London, which introduces new ideas about lightening and the causes of rain. In 1864, Luke Howard dies at the age of ninety-two, leaving behind a cloud naming system that is still used today.
A long time ago in a land far, far away, Luke Howard names the clouds—and in our imagination we see him turning to a friend and saying, “May the clouds be with you.”
To see photos of many kinds of clouds go to NOAA Sky Watcher Chart
Spidermania: Friends on the Web debunks myths about spiders and takes an extremely close look at creatures that have both fascinated and terrified humans. An introduction explains what makes spiders unique. Then ten species are highlighted with incredible electron micro-graph images and surprising facts. From diving bell spiders that live in bubbles underwater, to spitting spiders that shoot sticky streams of spit at their prey, to black widows and wolf spiders, this unusual book will intrigue readers and help cure arachnophobia. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Siy, Alexandra. "Luke Skywatcher." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 27 Apr.