The Volcano That Shrouded the Earth and Gave Birth to a Monster
Three years of darkness and cold spawned crime, poverty, and a literary masterpiece.
BY GILLEN D’ARCY WOOD / Illustrations By Wesley Allsbrook
Two hundred years ago, the greatest eruption in Earth’s recorded history took place. Mount Tambora—located on Sumbawa Island in the East Indies—blew itself up with apocalyptic force in April 1815.
After perhaps 1,000 years’ dormancy, the devastating evacuation and collapse required only a few days. It was the concentrated energy of this event that was to have the greatest human impact. By shooting its contents into the stratosphere with biblical force, Tambora ensured its volcanic gases reached sufficient height to disable the seasonal rhythms of the global climate system, throwing human communities worldwide into chaos. The sun-dimming stratospheric aerosols produced by Tambora’s eruption in 1815 spawned the most devastating, sustained period of extreme weather seen on our planet in perhaps thousands of years.
Within weeks, Tambora’s stratospheric ash cloud circled the planet at the equator, from where it embarked on a slow-moving sabotage of the global climate system at all latitudes. Five months after the eruption, in September 1815, meteorological enthusiast Thomas Forster observed strange, spectacular sunsets over Tunbridge Wells near London. “Fair dry day,” he wrote in his weather diary—but “at sunset a fine red blush marked by diverging red and blue bars.”