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Blast from the Past

The eruption of Mount Tambora killed thousands, plunged much of the world into a frightful chill and offers lessons for today

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In China and Tibet, unseasonably cold weather killed trees, rice, and even water buffalo. Floods ruined surviving crops. In the northeastern United States, the weather in mid-May of 1816 turned “backward,” as locals put it, with summer frost striking New England and as far south as Virginia. “In June . . . another snowfall came and folk went sleighing,” Pharaoh Chesney, of Virginia, would later recall. “On July 4, water froze in cisterns and snow fell again, with Independence Day celebrants moving inside churches where hearth fires warmed things a mite.” Thomas Jefferson, having retired to Monticello after completing his second term as President, had such a poor corn crop that year that he applied for a $1,000 loan.

Failing crops and rising prices in 1815 and 1816 threatened American farmers. Odd as it may seem, the settling of the American heartland was apparently shaped by the eruption of a volcano 10,000 miles away. Thousands left New England for what they hoped would be a more hospitable climate west of the Ohio River. Partly as a result of such migration, Indiana became a state in 1816 and Illinois in 1818.

Climate experts say that 1816 wasn’t the coldest year on record, but the long cold snap that coincided with the June-to-September growing season was a hardship. “The summer of 1816 marked the point at which many New England farmers who had weighed the advantages of going west made up their minds to do so,” the oceanographer Henry Stommel and his wife, Elizabeth, wrote in their 1983 book about Tambora’s global effects, Volcano Weather. If the ruinous weather wasn’t the only reason for the emigration, they note, it played a major part. They cite historian L. D. Stillwell, who estimated that twice the usual number of people left Vermont in 1816 and 1817—a loss of some 10,000 to 15,000 people, erasing seven years of growth in the Green Mountain State.

In Europe and Great Britain, far more than the usual amount of rain fell in the summer of 1816. It rained nonstop in Ireland for eight weeks. The potato crop failed. Famine ensued. The widespread failure of corn and wheat crops in Europe and Great Britain led to what historian John D. Post has called “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world.” After hunger came disease. Typhus broke out in Ireland late in 1816, killing thousands, and over the next couple of years spread through the British Isles.

Researchers today are careful not to blame every misery of those years on the Tambora eruption, because by 1815 a cooling trend was already under way. Also, there’s little evidence that the eruption affected climate in the Southern Hemisphere. In much of the Northern Hemisphere, though, there prevailed “rather sudden and often extreme changes in surface weather after the eruption of Tambora, lasting from one to three years,” according to a 1992 collection of scientific studies titled The Year Without a Summer?: World Climate in 1816.

In Switzerland, the damp and dark year of 1816 stimulated Gothic imaginings that still entertain us. Vacationing near Lake Geneva that summer, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, and some friends sat out a June storm reading a collection of German ghost stories. The mood was captured in Byron’s “Darkness,” a narrative poem set when the “bright sun was extinguish’d” and “Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day.” He challenged his companions to write their own macabre stories. John Polidori wrote The Vampyre, and the future Mary Shelley, who would later recall that inspirational season as “cold and rainy,” began work on her novel, Frankenstein, about a well-meaning scientist who creates a nameless monster from body parts and brings it to life by a jolt of laboratory-harnessed lightning.

For Mary Shelley, Frankenstein was primarily an entertainment to “quicken the beatings of the heart,” she wrote, but it has also long served as a warning not to overlook the consequences of humanity’s tampering with nature. Fittingly, perhaps, the eruption that probably influenced the invention of that morality tale has, nearly two centuries later, taught me a similar lesson about the dangers of humanity’s fouling our own atmosphere.

After several hours of hard, slow climbing, during which I stopped frequently to drink water and catch my breath, we reached the precipice that is the southern rim of Tambora. I stared in silent awe down the volcano’s throat. Clouds on the far side of the great crater formed and reformed in the light breeze. A solitary raptor sailed the currents and updrafts.

Three thousand feet deep and more than three miles across, the crater was as barren as it was vast, with not a single blade of grass in its bowl. Enormous piles of rubble, or scree, lay at the base of the steep crater walls. The floor was brown, flat and dry, with no trace of the lake that is said to collect there sometimes. Occasional whiffs of sulfurous gases warned us that Tambora is still active.

We lingered at the rim for a couple of hours, talking quietly and shaking our heads at the immensity before us. I tried to conceive of the unimaginable noise and power of the eruption, which volcanologists have classified as “super-colossal.” I would have liked to stay there much longer. When it was time to go, Rahim, knowing that I would probably never return, suggested I say good-bye to Tambora, and I did. He stood at the rim, whispering a prayer to the spirits of the mountain upon whose flanks he has lived most of his life. Then we made our descent.

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