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Bleak skies at night: the year without a summer and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Two hundred years ago this month, Mary Shelley had the terrifying ‘waking dream’ that she subsequently molded into the greatest Gothic novel of all time; Frankenstein. As all who have read the book or seen one of the many film adaptations will know, the ‘monster’ cobbled together out of human odds and ends by rogue scientist, Victor Frankenstein, is galvanised into existence by the power of electricity. In reality, however, the monster and all the book’s characters were brought to life by the power of the Earth.

Shelley had her waking dream while holidaying on the shores of Lake Geneva, with her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and others in 1816. The weather was appalling during the late spring and early summer; incessant rain and unseasonable cold weather imprisoning the party indoors, where they amused one another with ghost stories. The awful meteorological conditions were not, however, the result of some haphazard fluctuation in the European weather, but part of a pattern that saw much of the northern hemisphere experience exceptionally wet and unseasonably cold conditions. Neither was this so-called ‘Year Without a Summer’ a random climatic occurrence, but the wide-ranging upshot of a gigantic volcanic eruption in Indonesia during April the previous year.

Topping out at an impressive 4300m — making it the highest peak in the East Indies — the huge Tambora volcano towered over the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. The volcano rumbled into life in 1812, with swarms of earthquakes and gas emissions hinting that magma was finally on the move after more than two  thousand years of dormancy. It took three years, however, before things really started to get interesting. On 5th April 1815, a massive detonation shook the volcano, dumping ash across much of the island. But that was not the end of it, five days later — on the evening of 10th April — the titanic climactic blast began; a 24 hour long eruption-fest that obliterated the landscape of Sumbawa, and reached out across the planet to wreak havoc with the world’s weather.

The eruption was the largest historically and, quite possibly, the greatest since the end of the last Ice Age. It also had the most fundamental societal impact of any volcanic blast in modern times; hardly surprising given the stats of the event. Tambora ejected around 100 cubic kilometres of magma — sufficient to inundate the whole of Greater London to a depth of more than half a metre — mainly in the form of ash and the deadly torrents of gas, pumice, and rock known as pyroclastic flows. At the height of the eruption, which could be heard as far as 2,000km away, it was spurting out more than one and a half cubic kilometres of ash and debris every hour. The column of ash reached upwards to the edge of space and spread out across the whole of South East Asia and beyond.

Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora at the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia by Jialiang Gao. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

When all eventually went quiet on the evening of 11th April, the top half  kilometre of the volcano had been sliced off; replaced by a great steaming caldera, six kilometres wide. An estimated 12,000 people lost their lives during the eruption, but at least 60,000 died in the aftermath; succumbing to starvation or disease following the destruction of the harvest and contamination of water supplies. Meanwhile, the sixty million tonnes of sulphur gases lofted into the stratosphere slowly and methodically working its wickedness; combining with atmospheric water vapour to form a veil of sulphuric acid mist that blocked out the sun right across the planet, causing temperatures to plunge.

The awful summer of 1816 which lit the touchpaper for the creation of Victor Frankenstein and his monster, was the second coldest in the northern hemisphere in more than 600 years. The conspiracy of wet and cold conditions wiped out the harvest across the continent and in the UK and Ireland, so that bread prices spiraled out of the reach of even those on average wages. Famine and food riots stalked the continent, while rampant typhus took tens of thousands of lives in Ireland alone. On the other side of the Atlantic, heavy snow fell across New England in June and hard frosts throughout the summer slashed the growing season in half. Governments and economies struggled to survive as the western world faced what economic historian, John Post, has called its ‘last, great, subsistence crisis.’

The cooling effect of the Tambora blast, which saw global average temperatures fall by around 1°C, lasted for at least three years, after which the world’s weather returned to normal. Nothing like it has been seen since, although large volcanic explosions, such as the 1991 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, have caused measurable — although smaller — reductions in global temperatures. Tambora started to rumble again in 2011, and a moderate eruption soonish cannot be ruled out, although this would be very unlikely to match the scale of the 1815 blast, which followed more than a two millennia of dormancy. This does not mean, however, that we can relax. There are plenty of currently restless volcanoes out there capable of spawning gigantic climate-perturbing eruptions that could make life very difficult for us all.

Most worrying are two South American volcanoes. At Uturuncu in Bolivia, a 70km bulge has been growing since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, at Chile’s Laguna del Maule volcano the ground surface has been swelling at an astonishing 25cm a year above a huge, expanding, body of magma just 6km down. A major eruption at either volcano in the near-to-medium-term would not be a surprise. With mounting evidence that accelerating climate change is also able to promote volcanic activity in certain circumstances, the stage may well be set for a repeat of the Tambora experience, with all that this might entail for future food supply and security in our increasingly interconnected and globalised world.

Featured Image Credit: Hawaii volcano fire by tpsdave. Public domain via Pixabay.

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