In 1815, Mount Tambora, a towering peak on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, roared to life, spewing an incredible geyser of fire and hot ash into the air as the earth trembled with a deafening noise. Fiery stones and sizzling rain fell from the skies, boiling magma flowed down the mountain, and hurricane-force winds blew. In a matter of hours, idyllic villages populated by tens of thousands of islanders were erased from the map. When it was all over, and Tambora had sunk back into itself, the island was left a charred wasteland and Tambora entered the history books as the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history.
In this fascinating and immensely readable book, author Gilles D’Arcy Wood explains how Tambora’s eruption rippled out over the next three years to affect weather around the globe and alter human history in locations as far away as Europe and North America. The author is a professor at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and occasionally his book reads like a college lecture, albeit an intriguing one. He breaks his book into sections, spanning the globe to demonstrate the scope of Tambora’s climate-changing event, among them:
- Ash traveling through the stratosphere caused abnormal temperatures and rainfall (cool and soggy, or drought followed by monsoons) with catastrophic consequences in China’s Yunnan Province (mass starvation), Ireland (famine), and India (a world-wide cholera epidemic.)
- That same ash created vivid, other-worldly skies famously captured by European painters such as William Turner.
- The freakish weather of 1816, nicknamed the “Year Without a Summer” brought unseasonable chill and storms to Geneva, Switzerland where Mary Shelley and her literary companions were vacationing, resulting in the birth of Frankenstein and the Dracula story.
- Cooler temperatures brought on by Tambora’s fallout had a profound impact on New England; poor harvests sparked massive shifts in state populations, and contributed to the nation’s first economic depression, the Panic of 1819.
D’Arcy Wood’s treatise, an intersection of science, economics, and social history, is educational but never pedantic, always interesting, and often thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed how he wove the Frankenstein tale throughout the book as a unifying common thread.
Reading about the three-year after-effect of a volcanic eruption, one can’t help but wonder in what way and for how long our man-made disasters (chief among them global warming) will alter the course of human life on Earth. Tambora is the best kind of history book—a compelling look back and a cautionary glimpse into a possible future.