Some of the world's volcanoes are a little twitchy at the moment and experts say that the super one at Yellowstone
in North America may be sooner than we think. For us that is OK, we will be all
But if two or three substantial ones were to go up in series in
different places in the world the net effect could be substantial. The article
below from ten years ago tells us of the major one of 1816, Mount Tambora,
which had major effects in Europe.
HOW A VOLCANO ERUPTION WIPED AWAY SUMMER
Michael Sullivan, October 22, 2007.
The biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded in human history took place
nearly 200 years ago on Sumbawa, an island in
the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. The volcano is called Tambora, and according
to University of Rhode Island volcanologist Haraldur
Sigurdsson, the eruption is one of the most overlooked in recorded history.
Tambora's explosion was 10 times bigger than Krakatoa and more than 100
times bigger than Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens.
Approximately 100,000 died in its shadow.
"The eruption went up about 43 kilometers into the atmosphere.
That is about 30 miles — much higher
than any airplane flying today — and emitting a volume that is about 100 cubic
kilometers of molten rock in the form of ash and pumice," Sigurdsson says.
"That volume is by far the largest volume of any volcanic eruption in life
But it was the enormous cloud of gas — some 400 million tons of it —
released by the eruption that produced the "year without summer." When the gas reacted with water vapor in the
atmosphere, it formed tiny little droplets of sulfuric acid that became
suspended in the stratosphere, creating a veil over the Earth, Sigurdsson says.
This veil of gas acted like a mirror, bouncing radiation back into space
and decreasing the amount of heat that reached the Earth's surface, causing
global cooling, he says. Of course, no
one knew that at the time, and few people know about it even now. It wasn't
until the early '80s, Sigurdsson says, that he caught the Tambora bug. In that
decade, researchers taking core samples in Greenland's
ice made an amazing discovery.
"You drill down through the ice, and you can count the rings just
like in a tree. And people started doing research on the layers, and they found
there was a whacking great sulfur concentration at one particular layer:
1816," Sigurdsson says. "That
was first evidence that Tambora had global reach … and that it was
unstudied," he says, adding, "We needed to get much more info on what
really happened here."
The Year Without Summer
The year after Tambora erupted, Europe
was trying to cope with the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. There was a mass demobilization of soldiers
flooding into the labor market.
Patrick Webb, a dean at Tufts
School of Nutrition Science, describes the socio-political climate after the
wars. "You had economies disrupted,
infrastructure damaged, governments in limbo," Webb says. "And so the
conditions were already ripe for something to go wrong." And something did go wrong in 1816, known as
"the year without summer." Temperatures dropped, crops failed and people
"Hundreds of thousands of people died. People were reduced to
eating rats and fighting over roots," Webb says. "Most of these
people were killed by epidemic disease, [such as] typhus and other things
related to starvation. They simply couldn't find enough food." In America, New Englanders saw snow
well into the summer — the average temperature in July and August was 5 to 10
degrees below normal, according to Webb.
A Bad Vintage Year
Even the wine from 1816 was bad. Alain
Vauthier, who owns one of the oldest vineyards in Bordeaux, France,
keeps a fair bit of wine from each vintage in the cellar. He has an impressive
collection, which stretches back to the beginning of the 19th century, but
there are only a few bottles from 1816. Vauthier says that's as it should be.
"It is not a good vintage," Vauthier says. "It is a bad
time, bad weather, bad summer." Daniel
Lawton is the owner of Bordeaux's
oldest wine brokerage house. His assessment of the 1816 vintage is even less
charitable. "Detestable, you
understand? Horrible," Lawton
says. "A quarter of the normal crop. Very difficult to make good wine.
Just a terrible year." All of this was triggered by a volcanic eruption
that happened on the other side of the world.
Reading the Layers of Earth
For more than two decades, Sigurdsson, the volcanologist, has been
gathering information from the Indonesian island. His first trip to the
volcano, Tambora, was in 1986, and his most recent trip was just a few months
ago. His task is made easier, he says, by the scrupulous record keeping done by
the earth itself. The layers of the soil on the island are not unlike the
layers of ice in faraway Greenland.
"Each layer is like a page in a book. These layers are really a
graphic representation of the eruption," Sigurdsson says. "They are
drawing out for us, writing down for us, the history of the volcano. And they
While he was digging, Sigurdsson discovered something else: artifacts
and remains carbonized when Tambora erupted. He calls his excavation site
"The Lost Kingdom of Tambora" — a find he also refers to as "The
Pompeii of the East."
"I have studied deposits in Pompeii
from the great destruction of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It's the same mode of
destruction, the same mode of death. But [the] difference here is that the
human remains are much more carbonized—almost entirely carbonized,"
"The bones are a piece of charcoal," he says. That tells
scientists that it was a much bigger explosion — with much higher temperatures. The explosion was hot enough to melt glass,
and it happened so fast, Sigurdsson says, that people living on the island had
no chance to escape. The carbonized remains of one woman recovered at the site
"She is lying on her back with her hands outstretched. She is
holding a machete or a big knife in one hand. There is a sarong over her
shoulder. The sarong is totally carbonized, just like her bones,"
Sigurdsson says. "Her head is resting on the kitchen floor, just caught
there instantly and blown over by the flow."
The Lessons of Tambora
All the big volcanic eruptions — Tambora, Krakatau,
Pinatubo — have ended up cooling the Earth, causing temperatures to drop. And
that, Sigurdsson says, has some people thinking about replicating the Tambora
effect in an effort to slow global warming.
"People have proposed that we induce artificial volcanoes by
bringing sulfur up into the stratosphere to produce this effect,"
But, he warns, "Do you want to counter one pollutant with another
one? I don't think so. But that's been proposed."
Still, Sigurdsson thinks that lessons from eruptions like Tambora can be
applied to models used to study global climate change. Global warming is viewed
by many as the most pressing, most dangerous threat. But Sigurdsson warns that
catastrophic climate change might come from an unexpected, yet familiar,
"Somewhere on the Earth, within the next 1,000 years, there will be
a comparable eruption. And we'd better be aware of the consequences," he
says. He notes that another giant volcanic blast would release large amounts of
gases, creating interference in the atmosphere that could cause major
disruptions in telecommunications and aviation.
What just went bang?