*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Six hundred miles east of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, Mount Tambora stretches nearly 9,000 feet above the Java Sea on the island of Sumbawa. On April 10, 1815, the towering peak exploded violently, killing more than 70,000 people as it spewed rock and ash high into the atmosphere. The eruption, lasting more than three months, is the largest in recorded history and, arguably, the most influential on a global scale.
Jutting from the northwestern corner of Sumbawa Island, Mount Tambora is just one of several volcanoes along the archipelago that makes up Indonesia. Approximately 57,000 years ago, the peak pushed its way up through the Java Sea, forming Saleh Bay to its south. Attached to the island by the narrow Sanggar Peninsula, Mount Tambora grew to a height of more than 14,000 feet with a 37-mile-wide base.
According to modern researchers, the volcano erupted around 3900 and 3000 BCE, as well as 740 CE with a relatively stable profile: lava ejected through the vent and spewed over the side. Once released, the pyroclastic material swept down the mountain, leveling trees and consuming the lush terrain of Sumbawa. Silent for more than a millennium, Mount Tambora first gave indications another event was imminent in 1812, when rumbles and smoke plumes steadily increased in frequency.
With the cataclysmic eruption during the evening of April 10, 1815, the entire shape of the mountain changed. The caldera — the central peak — collapsed into the magma chamber below, decreasing the height of Mount Tambora by more than 5,000 feet as ash and rock shot up from below. As the intense heat escaped through the vent, the explosion was heard some 1,600 miles away in western Indonesia.
In the moments following the blast, some 12,000 people were killed as a thick layer of superheated ash and volcanic rock landed around them. The village of Tambora was incinerated within minutes as the “liquid fire” engulfed the mountainside. Over the months to come, with Mount Tambora still active until mid-July, as many as 60,000 people on Sumbawa died due to starvation. Soot covered the land and sea in a suffocating grey blanket several feet thick, leaving residents unable to harvest food or hunt animals. Ships moving through the area were forced to plow the seas in order to break through.
Researchers believe the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) reached a 7 on an 8-point scale, hurling 38 cubic miles of material tens of thousands of feet into the air. (For comparison, the May 1980 explosion at Mount St. Helens in Washington registers as a 5 with just a quarter-cubic-mile ejection.) With more than 310 quadrillion pounds of material released — much of it small enough to float all the way into the stratosphere, more than 140,000 feet up — ash fell as far as 800 miles from Mount Tambora. For almost two days, the sky was darkened for a radius of approximately 370 miles.
During the rest of 1815, the ash cloud dispersed across the Northern Hemisphere. Residents of London observed especially vibrant sunsets well into the fall months, likely owing to the vast amounts of sulphur floating 100,000 feet above the surface. As far away as the United States, an aerosol veil — a fog-like cloud of tiny ash particles — settled in for weeks.
Up until the summer of 1816, most of Mount Tambora’s effects were little more than a curiosity to those who had not seen the volcano directly. With ash still in the upper atmosphere, the long-term consequences of the eruption finally began to take shape, causing the “Year Without a Summer” and wreaking havoc on weather patterns from India to the US. The average global temperature fell by more than a degree, causing radical shifts in precipitation.
The bitter cold resulted in a foot of snowfall in Quebec City and crop-killing frosts in New England during early June. British farmers found themselves baffled by persistent rains and cold temperatures, forced to sit idly by as their soaked fields went unharvested. Monsoon season in India nearly vanished, resulting in minimal production. Food — particularly grains — became scarce, driving prices up and shuttering bakeries all over the world.
For the first time in more than 200 years, since the Huaynaputina eruption in 1600, Mother Nature’s fury extended into social circles, particularly across Europe as it rebuilt from the Napoleonic Wars. In addition to the widespread famine — one of the worst ever recorded — illnesses like typhus and cholera spread rapidly. Unable to comprehend the causes, people struck out in search of food and warmer temperatures or, in some major French and British cities, incited riots.
The effects weren’t all bad, however: the rainy summer forced John William Polidori, Lord Byron and Mary Shelley to stay indoors that summer entertaining friends with stories and poems at their summer home in Switzerland. Byron produced the verse of Darkness, Polidori wrote the prose for The Vampyre and Shelley, famously, composed the tale of Frankenstein.
And, due to the shortage of oats to feed horses, some believe German Karl Drais spent the rainy days working on a new form of transportation that did not require animals to be ridden or used for pulling. The result was the velocipede, the ancestor to the modern bicycle.
Also On This Day:
837 – Halley’s Comet makes its closet approach to Earth, a mere 3.2 million miles
1606 – The Charter of the Virginia Company of London is established for the purpose of settling in North America
1865 – Confederate General Robert E. Lee addresses his men for the final time on the day after surrendering to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House
1912 – The Titanic leaves Southampton, England on her maiden voyage
1957 – The Suez Canal reopens after a three-month closure