The year without a summer
The year 1815 is probably best known for Napoleon’s defeat in the Battle of Waterloo. It is widely seen as a turning point in the history of Europe that ushered in an era of peace, material prosperity and technological progress.
But the Battle of Waterloo was not the only event of consequence that year. Two months prior to the Battle of Waterloo, across the world in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Mount Tambora erupted in what can aptly be called the Napoleon of Volcanic Eruptions.
Mount Etna volcanic eruption, Image courtesy: Associated Press
Napoleon of Volcanic Eruptions
On April 5, 1815 Mount Tambora was home to a colossal volcanic eruption that registered a VEI-7 on the Volcanic Eruption Index. VEI is a 9-point scale with values from 0-8, with VEI-8 representing a mega-colossal volcanic eruption. It is the only volcano in the last 750 years to register a VEI-7 and ejected billions of tons of debris and ash into the atmosphere with pyroclastic flows spreading to more than 20 km from the summit. The explosion was heard from 2600 km distance and caused pitch darkness till as far as 600 km! The eruption lasted for nearly 2 weeks reaching a peak on April 10 and also resulted in tsunami waves that struck the Indonesian islands. It resulted in nearly 100,000 human deaths from the immediate effects of the eruption alone.
Yet, that wasn’t the end of it.
Mount Tambora, Courtesy: NASA
Onset of the “Year Without a Summer”
The eruption of Mount Tambora resulted in a volcanic winter with average global temperatures dipping by 0.4-0.70C. Similar to a “nuclear winter”, volcanic winters are caused by sulfur dioxide, which gets converted to sulfuric acid and forms aerosols high up in the atmosphere. These aerosols block incoming solar radiation for years after the eruption. With Mount Tambora’s eruption releasing millions of tons of sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere, the consequences were felt all over the world. So much so that 1816, the year after Tambora’s eruption, is known as the Year Without a Summer. It is also known by other names such as “Poverty Year”, “Summer that Never Was” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”.
In the summer and spring of 1816, eastern parts of U.S. witnessed a persistent “dry fog” that dimmed sunlight to such an extent that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Ironically, the volcanic winter was at its most severe in the summer months. Several areas of U.S. and Canada experienced heavy snowfall with reports of half a foot of snow on June 6 in New England. Bitter frost caused major crop failures and caused prices of corn, wheat and other grains to rise sharply. The crop failure was further aggravated by the inaccessibility of roads and waterways due to the snow and severely affected the supply of food and firewood.
For a continent still recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, the timing of the eruption couldn’t have been worse. Cold temperatures, abnormal rainfall, storms and flooding of major rivers resulted in failed harvests, food shortages and famine in many countries including Britain, France, Germany and Ireland. Food prices rose dramatically and people took to demonstrations, rioting and looting in many European cities since the cause of the problems was unknown at the time.
Switzerland was forced to declare a national emergency because of the famine and violence. A major typhus epidemic broke out in Ireland between 1816 and 1819 taking an estimated 100,000 Irish lives. Hungary and Italy experienced red and brown snow as a result of volcanic ash in the atmosphere. Overall, the famine caused about 200,000 deaths in Europe and was the worst famine of 19th century Europe.
A year long winter (Indicative Image)
One of the biggest impact of Mount Tambora’s eruption was slowing the development of the Indian monsoon, the world’s largest weather season. This resulted in erratic weather during 1816-17 with the Indian subcontinent first experiencing drought and then unseasonal flooding. Not only did it devastate crop yields, but it also gave rise to a new and deadly strain of cholera that triggered an epidemic from Bengal to as far as Moscow!
In China, the cold weather resulted in summer snowfall & frost that destroyed rice crops and caused widespread famine. The monsoon disruption also resulted in devastating floods in the Yangtze valley. The failure of crops also resulted in opium growth by farmers to earn money and led to a boom in opium trade that continues till date.
- Crop failures and inability to feed horses led to research in new ways of horseless transportation leading to the invention of Laufmaschine, the first bicycle, by Karl Drais.
- The Arctic experienced the opposite effect and warmed up, thereby clearing enough sea ice to allow British explorers explore the region.
- Justus Von Liebeg, a German chemist, experienced the famine as a child and went on to study plant nutrition & introduced mineral fertilizers.
- The spectacular sunsets as a result of the eruption inspired many paintings at the time including J.M.W. Turner’s Chichester Canal.