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Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death: The Eruption of Mt. Tambora

The year 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer (also the Poverty Year, The Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death), because of severe summer climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. Evidence suggests that the anomaly was caused by a combination of a historic low in solar activity with a volcanic winter event, the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years. The Little Ice Age, then in its concluding decades, may also have been a factor.

Caldera_Mt_Tambora_Sumbawa_Indonesia
Aerial view of the caldera of Mount Tambora, formed during the colossal 1815 eruption.

The English governor of Indonesia, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, wrote of the erruption in his “History of Java” (1817). This was later incorporated in Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” (1850):

Island of Sumbawa, 1815. –
In April, 1815, one of the most frightful eruptions recorded in history occurred in the province of Tomboro, in the island of Sumbawa, about 200 miles from the eastern extremity of Java.
In the April of the year preceding the volcano had been observed in a state of considerable activity, ashes having fallen upon the decks of vessels which sailed past the coast. The eruption of 1815 began on the 5th of April, but was most violent on the 11th and 12th, and did not entirely cease till July.

The sound of the explosions was heard in Sumatra, at the distance of 970 geographical miles in a direct line; and at Ternate, in an opposite direction, at the distance of 720 miles. Out of a population of 12,000, in the province of Tomboro, only twenty-six individuals survived.

Violent whirlwinds carried up men, horses, cattle, and whatever else came within their influence, into the air; tore up the largest trees by the roots, and covered the whole sea with floating timber. Great tracts of land were covered by lava, several streams of which, issuing from the crater of the Tomboro mountain, reached the sea.

So heavy was the fall of ashes, that they broke into the Resident’s house at Bima, forty miles east of the volcano, and rendered it, as well as many other dwellings in the town, uninhabitable. On the side of Java the ashes were carried to the distance of 300 miles, and 217 towards Celebes, in sufficient quantity to darken the air. The floating cinders to the westward of Sumatra formed, on the 12th of April, a mass two feet thick, and several miles in extent, through which ships with difficulty forced their way.

The darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night. Although this volcanic dust when it fell was an impalpable powder, it was of considerable weight when compressed, a pint of it weighing twelve ounces and three quarters.

“Some of the finest particles,” says Mr. Crawfurd, “were transported to the islands of Amboyna and Banda, which last is about 800 miles east from the site of the volcano, although the south-east monsoon was then at its height.” They must have been projected, therefore, into the upper regions of the atmosphere, where a counter current prevailed.
Along the sea-coast of Sumbawa, and the adjacent isles, the sea rose suddenly to the height of from two to twelve feet, a great wave rushing up the estuaries, and then suddenly subsiding. Although the wind at Bima was still during the whole time, the sea rolled in upon the shore, and filled the lower parts of the houses with water a foot deep. Every prow and boat was forced from the anchorage, and driven on shore.

The town called Tomboro, on the west side of Sumbawa, was overflowed by the sea, which encroached upon the shore so that the water remained permanently eighteen feet deep in places where there was land before. Here we may observe, that the amount of subsidence of land was apparent, in spite of the ashes, which would naturally have caused the limits of the coast to be extended.

The area over which tremulous noises and other volcanic effects extended, was 1000 English miles in circumference, including the whole of the Molucca Islands, Java, a considerable portion of Celebes, Sumatra, and Borneo. In the island of Amboyna, in the same month and year, the ground opened, threw out water, and then closed again.

In conclusion, I may remind the reader, that but for the accidental presence of Sir Stamford Raffles, then governor of Java, we should scarcely have heard in Europe of this tremendous catastrophe. He required all the residents in the various districts under his authority to send in a statement of the circumstances which occurred within their own knowledge; but, valuable as were their communications, they are often calculated to excite rather than to satisfy the curiosity of the geologist. They mention, that similar effects, though in a less degree, had, about seven years before, accompanied an eruption of Carang Assam, a volcano in the island of Bali, west of Sumatra; but no particulars of that great catastrophe are recorded.

The Year Without a Summer was an agricultural disaster. Historian John D. Post has called this “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world”.The unusual climatic aberrations of 1816 had the greatest effect on most of New England, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe. Typically, the late spring and summer of central and northern New England and southeastern Canada are relatively stable: temperatures (average of both day and night) average between about 68 and 77 °F (20 and 25 °C) and rarely fall below 41 °F (5 °C). Summer snow is an extreme rarity.

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