200 Years After Tambora, Some Unusual Effects Linger

Frankenstein, famine poetry, polar exploration—the “year without a summer” was just the beginning

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia left a huge crater, along with a sometimes unexpected legacy. (Jialiang Gao, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
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On April 10, 1815, the Tambora volcano in Indonesia roared into action, producing the largest eruption of the last 10,000 years and killing thousands of villagers living on the mountain’s slopes. The volcano produced some 36 cubic miles of ash and rock and injected large amounts of small particles, or aerosols, into the stratosphere, which produced brilliantly colored skies on the other side of the world.

Tambora was “a tragedy of nations masquerading as a spectacular sunset,” Gillen D’Arcy Wood of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, writes in Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World. Those aerosol particles stayed in the stratosphere for two years, blocking sunlight and causing havoc on Earth’s climate. The year 1816 was so cold that it snowed in New England in June, and the period became known as “the year without a summer.” Grain shortages and famine occurred across the globe, and Tambora’s far-reaching death toll would eventually claim more than 100,000 according to some estimates.

Other effects of the eruption weren't immediately obvious, ranging from artistic masterworks to polar exploration, and some of them still live with us today:

Spectacular Sunsets Set Artists Ablaze

In the months after the Tambora eruption, European artists, such as William Turner, recorded the strange sunsets caused by the event. Scientists have even been able to use paintings by artists like Caspar David Friedrich of Germany to measure aerosol levels from the years after Tambora. The painting above, for instance, was created between 1818 and 1820 and famously captures the vivid reds and oranges of post-eruption skies.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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