200 Years After Tambora, Some Unusual Effects Linger
Frankenstein, famine poetry, polar exploration—the “year without a summer” was just the beginning
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.
Dreary Days Inspired Darker Works
The gloomy, rainy weather that followed the eruption also influenced Gothic novelists. Author Mary Shelley, for instance, spent the summer of 1816 with her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their poet friend Lord Byron at Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and the weather there trapped the party indoors for days on end. Each was influenced in their own way by the experience. Byron wrote of a bright sun that “was extinguish’d, and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space.” And Mary Shelley incorporated the dreary atmosphere into her classic book Frankenstein.
Famine Rouses the "Poet of the People" in China
The months and years following the cold summer of 1816 were tough for many around the world. China's Yunnan province suffered a particularly devastating famine. “Famished corpses lay unmourned on the roads; mothers sold their children or killed them out of mercy; and human skeletons wandered the fields, feeding on white clay,” Wood writes in Tambora. These times were recorded in the poetry of Li Yuyang, an aspiring intellectual who was forced into farming and witnessed effects of the famine first-hand. His first post-Tambora poem, “A Sigh for Autumn Rain,” begins:
The clouds like a dragon’s breath on the mountains,
Winds howl, circling and swirling,
The Rain God shakes the stars, and the rain
Beats down on the world. An earthquake of rain.
In subsequent works, he would document the region’s barren fields, parents bartering their children on the street and cold and hungry widows. Today the carefully managed rice terraces of the Honghe Hani in southern Yunnan (seen here) are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Vermonters Used Maple Syrup As Currency
While the United States didn't experience a famine, American merchants were able to make a lot of money by shipping wheat to Europe, and rising grain prices at home caused hardship for many. In New England, people who could not afford the high-priced wheat or corn changed their diets to include the green tops of potato plants, wild pigeon, hedgehog and oats, a grain that could survive a cold summer. Vermonters in particular had just enjoyed a good year for maple syrup, which they were able to trade for fish. They consumed so much “that 1817 became known in some parts of New England as the ‘mackerel year’,” William and Nicholas Klingaman note in The Year Without a Summer.
The U.S. Suffered Its First Real Estate Bubble
Due to the demand for grain to supply Europe, coupled with bad weather, droves of settlers moved west across the Appalachian Mountains. This sparked the first U.S. real estate bubble—a situation complicated by the fact that there was no national currency at the time. “The frontier land drive ran on confidence alone, through the circulation of notes of credit backed by personal endorsements,” Wood notes in Tambora. The national bank began limiting credit, and when European weather improved, demand for American grain dropped, sparking a financial panic. Three hundred banks failed overnight, and the depression that followed lasted for several years. “The Tambora period and its aftermath introduced shell-shocked Americans to the nasty vicissitudes of both climate and commerce,” Woods writes.
Explorers Flooded the Arctic
While most of the world was dealing with the lingering atmospheric effects of the eruption, the dome of ice that tops the Arctic broke apart due to changes in winds and currents. Reports of this ice-free sea sparked new dreams of finding the Northwest Passage—a strip of open water that would offer a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific. But by the time the first British expedition, led by Captain John Ross, arrived in 1818, the Arctic had frozen again. Still, the search for the passage continued for more than two decades—sometimes with disasterous consequences.
Cholera Spread Outside of India
Before Tambora, cholera was mostly confined to the Ganges Delta in India. The region of Bengal, for instance, had long suffered periodic outbreaks during the months of November to January. But the eruption caused local climate changes, including the loss of one monsoon, that have been blamed for the emergence of a new strain of the disease. This strain was able to spread more easily, and between 1819 and 1820, it moved out of Bengal and into Burma and Thailand (then called Siam). By 1831, it had reached Western Europe, and it came to North America the following year. Today there are some 3 to 5 million cases of the disease annually, which kill 100,000 to 200,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.