The 200th anniversary of the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history will be marked by the publication of a new book by U. of I. professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood. If you think the title character might be Vesuvius, or Krakaoa, or maybe Pinatubo, you’re wrong. Wood’s focus is Tambora – a mountain in the Indonesian archipelago that erupted so violently in April of 1815 that today, it is ranked as “super colossal” on the scientific Volcanic Explosivity Index. And the explosion was only the first dose of Tambora’s destructive power.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood climbed Mount Tambora in March 2011 to take this photo. The day he took the photo, Wood reports, “The mountain rumbled and the odor of sulfur was palpable.” (Click for more.) | Photo by Gillen D'Arcy Wood
In his book, “Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World” (published next month by Princeton University Press), Wood describes the cascading aftereffects, ranging from climatic cooling that occurred as Tambora’s immense ash cloud circled the globe to less intuitive consequences, such as a worldwide cholera pandemic, a boom in opium production, a spike in arctic exploration and an economic depression in the U.S. The fact that people who lived through these chaotic consequences never realized they were caused by a remote volcano made Wood’s research challenging.
“It was really detective work, connecting the dots,” he said. “As a historian, I rely on contemporary documents from that period, and no one was making the connection at the time.”
An English professor specializing in the Romantic era, Wood fell into this research in 2007 while auditing a U. of I. course in atmospheric sciences taught by professor Michael Schlesinger. The class frequently discussed volcanoes, because they can affect weather patterns, and Wood kept hearing the name “Tambora.” One day, he stayed after class to ask Schlesinger about this particular volcano.
“Like a lot of fruitful human endeavors, this book originated in feelings of shame: I felt ashamed that I knew nothing about Tambora,” Wood said. “Here I was supposed to be a scholar of the Romantic era, and 1815 is right in the heart of this period. Yet I didn’t even know where this volcano was.”
Schlesinger explained that Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa, was rated a 7 on the VEI (by comparison, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens rated a 5, Krakatoa a 6), and was perfectly positioned, just 8 degrees north of the equator, to belch sulfur, fluorine and fine ash particles straight up into the stratospheric system of wind currents that circle the globe. For Wood, who had long been interested in climate change, this conversation was a light bulb moment.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “When I began trying to research Tambora, I found bits and pieces, but nobody had written about this as a major global event. It’s as if this just landed in my lap.” He spent the next five years researching this book.
The initial effects of the eruption were brutal and mercifully swift. Archaeologists in 2004 discovered that villages on Mount Tambora had been instantly buried under several meters of pumice and ash. In one home excavated by a team from the University of Rhode Island, a woman holding a knife (probably preparing a meal) had been instantly turned to charcoal, “evidence of immolation at far higher temperatures than those generated by Vesuvius,” Wood writes. Within days, fallout poisoned the island’s wells, quickly adding another 40,000 deaths to the 10,000 or so villagers buried under the lava.
Tambora took an even larger toll in Europe and North America. Over the next three years, its aerosol film of stratospheric gasses set off a chemical chain reaction that caused a 5 to 6 degree Fahrenheit temperature decline in some places, resulting in crop failures, famine and more deaths. In New England, 1816 was called “the year without a summer,” but Wood’s book also details the devastation in places that were harder hit. In Germany, 1817 was called “the year of the beggar.” In Switzerland, deaths outnumbered births in both 1817 and 1818.
In South Asia, Tambora’s cloud had the opposite meteorological effect, delaying the annual monsoon season for the summer of 1816 and eventually altering the chemistry of the Bay of Bengal. Wood uses a combination of historic accounts and modern science to show how this climate change produced a new and deadly strain of cholera that claimed 125,000 fatalities in Java before setting off on a slow journey around the world.
Each chapter of “Tambora” tackles another unexpected consequence of the eruption – unseasonal warming at the Earth’s poles, spurring arctic exploration; rice crop failures in southwestern China forcing farmers to resort to growing opium; an ice tsunami in the Alps inspiring modern theories of geology. In presenting the story of this little-known volcano and its everlasting effects on the world, Wood isn’t so much trying to bestow Tambora with its rightful place in infamy as he is using it to demonstrate what he describes as “the fragile interdependence of human and natural systems.” In the epilogue, he suggests that the far-reaching effects of Tambora’s temporary climate chaos should serve as a cautionary tale.
“It’s like a perfect case study of the devastating impacts that even a short-term deterioration in climate can have,” Wood said. “Now, we’re entering a period of open-ended climate crisis. We can foresee increasing disruptions.”
As the director of the U. of I.’s Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities, Wood’s English courses now have an environmental bent: The Ecology of Poetry 101, Green Romanticism 431 and New Directions in Eco-criticism 570. His lifelong passion for the poetry and music of the Romantic era has moved to the background.
“I can’t work without listening to music,” Wood said, “so I listen to a lot of Mozart. But in the time that I have left in my career, I need to devote myself to some small corner of the general sustainability enterprise.”