200 Years Ago, Mount Tambora Exploded and Changed the World

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etching of Tamora

200 years ago today, Mount Tambora, on an island in Indonesia, erupted just before sundown. It is the largest eruption in recorded history, four times as big as the more famous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and ten times as big as Mount Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption. The explosion was heard 1,600 miles away (Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, thought it was cannon fire). Thousands died in the immediate area from direct volcanic effects and perhaps another forty thousand on surrounding islands from famine and disease in the months after.

However there were longer term effects worldwide; so much ash and sulfur dioxide were sent into the atmosphere that it blocked the sun and caused the average global temperature to drop 2°C. That doesn’t sound like much, but it made 1816 the coldest year since the 1400s. Crops failed, people starved and rioted, diseases ran rampant, rivers froze. Thousands of farmers left New England for the midwest; Vermont alone had a population drop of 15,000 people. According to William and Nicholas Klingaman in 1816: The Year Without Summer, reviewed in Macleans Magazine,

The massive load of sulphate gases and debris the mountain shot 43 km into the stratosphere blocked sunlight and distorted weather patterns for three years, dropping temperatures between two and three degrees Celsius, shortening growing seasons and devastating harvests worldwide, especially in 1816. In the northern hemisphere, farmers from frozen—and abolitionist—New England, where some survived the winter of 1816 to 1817 on hedgehogs and boiled nettles, poured into the Midwest. That migration, the Klingamans argue, set in motion demographic ripples that would not play out until America’s Civil War, almost a half-century later.
settlers on the move

Heading west in the year without summer/ New England Historical Society/Public Domain

In an interesting article in the Daily Beast two years ago, Mark Hertsgaard sees parallels between the year without summer and the climate crisis today. As crops failed, prices skyrocketed and the quality of food declined; political unrest increased and mass migrations were triggered. all over a few degrees.

But another parallel “ is either the most bizarre or darkly hilarious of all.”

As the ghastly weather of 1816 persisted, observers naturally tried to divine the cause of their distress. The favored explanation among the learned was sunspots. Newspapers in both Europe and the U.S. cited the appearance, in April, of an unusually large spot on the surface of the sun as a likely cause of the disastrously frigid weather.

That sounds familiar. No doubt there will be a lot of coverage of the year without summer next year, but it all started with this event at 5:05 Indonesian time April 5, 200 years ago.


J.M.W. Turner/Public Domain

It also made for great sunsets for a decade.

I am reading 1816: The year without summer now, and will review shortly.