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Tambora Eruption Triggered Year Without Summer

The Tambora Eruption of 1815 spewed massive amounts of ash and aerosols that blocked the sun. Located on the island of Sumbawa in present day southern Indonesia the eruption remains the largest in recorded history. Over the following months, darkness spread across the Northern Hemisphere resulting in The Year Without A Summer in 1816.

The powerful ramifications of pervasive dark skies included flooding, crop failures, famines and epidemics. Gloom and doom also inspired great works of art from poems and paintings to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, the world was in the loop thanks to improvements in communications including the telegraph and Associated Press. But most people did not make the connection in real time between the 1815 Tambora Eruption  and the dramatic changes in weather patterns until decades later.

First, A Few Quick Facts

-Starting in April of 1815, the Tambora eruption “ejected a volume of approximately 31 cubic miles of ash, rated a Volcanic Explosivity Index (or VEI) of 7 (out of a logarithmically-based scale of 10) due to its destructive effects, on a scale and severity not seen since the 180 AD explosion of Lake Taupo in New Zealand.” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-NOAA)

-Mt. Tambora (sometimes spelled Tomboro) is an active stratovolcano. It was 14,100 feet and one of the tallest mountains in all of Indonesia before its eruption. After the event, its height decreased more than 4,000 feet to just under 10,000. (NOAA)

-The explosion, resulting pyroclastic flows, tsunamis and ash killed at least 10,000 islanders.  A pyroclastic flow is a hot (typically >800 °C, or >1,500 °F ), chaotic mixture of rock fragments, gas, and ash that travels rapidly (tens of meters per second) away from a volcanic vent or collapsing flow front. (USGS)

-The heavier material fell to the ground and the ocean’s surface. When lighter particulates reached the stratosphere, they spread out and created an aerosol cloud the size of Australia. (NPS)

-Crops failed across Europe and the U.S. due to the cold or lack of sunshine causing grain and oat prices to soar, torrential rains flooded crops in Ireland, novel strains of cholera killed millions in India, crime became rampant, and people starved in many countries. (NPS-National Parks Service)

-The volcanic winter also caused food shortages for most of North America, Western Europe, and parts of Asia.  In addition to the initial deaths caused by the Tambora Eruption, more than 100,000 people died from the resulting food shortages and disease over the following decade.(NOAA)

-In New England, snow fell in July of 1816, and temperatures reached the 30’s.” (NOAA)

-The Tambora Eruption wreaked havoc on markets from Ireland to China and to the fledgling United States. Volatility in food markets led to financial panic before the decade was out. Floods in the Bay of Bengal fostered a deadly cholera epidemic that would overshadow much of the rest of the century. (100Days.org,uk)

Journals And Newspapers Offer Accounts Of The Year Without A Summer

The following from journals and newspapers offer a window into the Tambora Eruption and the year without a summer.

First-Person Account Printed November 30, 1815

This account of the after math of the Tambora Eruption was initially dated May 29, 1815.

“We have had one of the most tremendous eruptions of the mountain Tomboro [spellings varied] that ever perhaps took place in any part of the world…We heard the explosions here distinctly, and had some of the ashes. It was totally dark at Macassar long after the sun was up; and at noon, at Sourabaya, the sun succeeded in enlightening the good folks so far as to allow them to see some yards around…”

The layer of ash was at least 1.5 inches deep. Tree trunks and pumice stone were so thick for many miles around the island that ships could not navigate. Many people died immediately and other were dying daily. Crops were destroyed over much of the island.

The Evening Post New York, New York, Tue, Feb 27, 1816

The darkness commended at 7 am and continued until noon. There was no wind but the ocean was agitated, leaving several large prows above the water line.

“The fall of ashes was so heavy as to break the roof of the residency house in many places..”

Memoirs of Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) Stationed Nearby In Java

“To preserve an authentic account of the violent and extraordinary eruption of the Tomboro Mountain on Sambawa, in April last, I required from the several Residents of districts on this Island a statement of the circumstances that occurred within their knowledge; and from their replies the following narrative is collected. It is, perhaps, incomplete until some further accounts are received of the immediate effects upon the mountain itself; but the progress is sufficiently known to render interesting a present account of the phenomenon, which exceeds any one of a similar description on record.

The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of the 5th of April, they were noticed in every quarter, and continued at intervals until the following day. The noise was, in the first instance, almost universally attributed to distant cannons; so much so, that a detachment of troops were marched from Djocjocarta, in the expectation that a neighbouring post was attacked, and along the coast boats were in two instances dispatched in quest of a supposed ship in distress. […] (100Days.org.uk)

One foot of snow in June, The Evening Post New York, New York, Thu, June 27, 1816

“We noticed in this paper of Thursday last, the extraordinary circumstance of a fall of snow, of upwards of an hour’s duration, on that day. Since that time, the weather has presented more permanent and extraordinary features of severity. On the afternooin o the 6th when the clouds cleared away, the tops of the mountains to the north of this city were perceived to be covered with snow, the most distant apparently to the depth of a foot.”

The Reporter, Brattleborough, VT, July 17, 1816

“The Season — It is believed that the memory of no man living can furnish a parallel to this present season. From every part of the United States, north of the Potomac, as well as from Canada, we have accounts of the remarkable coldness of the weather, and of vegetation retarded or destroyed by untimely frosts. In Montreal, on the 6th, 8th, and 9th of June were falls of snow, and from the 6th to the 10th, it froze every night. Birds, which were never before found except in remote forests, were then to be met with in every part of the city, and among the [flocks], and many of them benumbed with cold, dropped dead in the streets.

In the northern parts of the state [VT], about the same time, snow fell in considerable quantities. In the town of Cabot it was 18 inches deep on the 8th of June. From the northern and western parts of New York, and from Maine, we have received accounts of summer snows, and winter lingering in the lap of June; and the most gloomy apprehensions of distressing scarcity are entertained by those who witnessed the phenomena.” (CelebrateBoston)

Many People Blamed Sunspots For The Year Without A Summer

Most people did not link the Tambora Eruption of 1815 to the Year Without a Summer of until the 20th century. At the time, many hypotheses were presented. One of the most popular was that temperatures dropped as a result of sunspots.

The Reporter (Brattleborough, VT) July 17, 1816

“Spots on the Sun have likewise been supposed to have an influence on the present season. The sun is in no doubt the great fountain of caloric, or heat, as well as of light, and it is very rational to suppose that the objects which exhibit to us the appearance of spots on the sun, by intercepting calorific rays, may have deprived the earth of some part of quantity it usually receives. Spots on the sun so large as to be visible with the naked eye, are not of rare occurrence, and we believe something of the kind may always be seen by a telescope. Galileo, by the aid of a telescope, first discovered that the sun, which before his time had generally been considered as a globe of pure fire, was sullied by a number of dark spots, which appeared on various parts of its surface.”

While sunspots had been studied and observed by the time of the Tambora Eruption of 1815, the science was not well understood. According to NOAA and Climate.gov, there has been minimal long-term change in the sun’s overall brightness since the start of the Industrial Revolution. 

Records of sunspots show increased solar activity during the first 7 decades of the 20th century, likely tied to the peak of the last 100-year Gleissberg Cycle. ” (NOAA: Climate.gov.)

While sunspots did not contribute to the cooling effect of Year Without A Summer,  Eunice Foote defined global warming through a series of simple experiments on the interaction between various gases and the sun’s rays. Understanding the extraordinary power of carbon dioxide gas to absorb heat, she made the connection between the concentration of that gas in Earth’s atmosphere due to Industrialization  and rising temperature. The year was 1856.

The Bright Side Of The Year Without A Summer

Volcanic eruptions inspired great works through the 1800s, including the paintings of the Volcano School in Hawaii and the works that resulted from spectacular skies that resulted worldwide from Krakatoa’s eruption in 1883.

But people remained largely “in the dark” after the Tambora Eruption. Fortunately the gloomy atmosphere inspired a few famous literary works and paintings.

Lord Byron rented the Villa Diodati in the village of Cologny near Lake Geneva in Switzerland from June 10 to 1 November 1816. With dark, gloomy and wet weather, Byron and his guests and visitors famously spent three days creating stories to frighten each other. Among the works spawned from the gloom:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley,

The Vampyre by John Polidori

Darkness by Lord Byron

In Lord Byron’s poem Darkness, the sun disappears, triggering the end of humankind. 

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:

Sean Munger from the University of Oregon writes in 1816: “The Mighty Operations of Nature”: Societal Effects of the Year Without a Summer:

Purveyors of apocalyptic or religious messages, perhaps inevitably, co-opted the climate events into their preexisting narratives. A particularly striking example comes from Europe.

Sometime in 1815, an Italian astronomer made a prediction that sunspots would increase sharply, eventually blotting out the sun and causing the end of life on Earth. By persons and in circumstances unknown, the “Bologna Prophecy” eventually included a specific date for the apocalypse: July 18, 1816.”

The prediction was published widely in newspapers across Europe including the London Times , June 20, 1816. 

With people hungry for an explanation for the Year Without A Summer, the idea of the sun’s demise coupled with a misunderstanding of the science of Sunspots triggered a sense of impending doom in more than a few people.

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