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Mount Tambora Super Eruption and the Year Without a Summer
Obscured on an island among the large Indonesian archipelago and frequently overlooked by history, Mount Tambora on Sumbawa is the earth’s monument of the biggest and most devastating volcanic eruption in recorded history. According to National Public Radio, the eruption that took place nearly 200 years ago was estimated to be 10 times bigger than Krakatau’s and more than 100 times bigger than that of Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens.
Scientific experiments have indicated that prior to 1815 Mount Tambora was dormant for 5,000 years but magma had been building up in the chamber. The first sign of activity took place in 1812 when small eruptions of ash and steam were accompanied by earthquakes. This continued until 5 April 1815, when the first significant eruption took place. On that particular day, a moderate-sized eruption occurred, followed by thunderous explosions, heard in Makassar on Sulawesi, 380 km away, in Batavia (now Jakarta) on Java 1,260 km away, and on Ternate in the Maluku Islands 1,400 km away. On the morning of the 6th. April volcanic ash began to fall on East Java with faint explosions lasting until 10 April. What was first thought to be the sound of firing guns was heard on 10 April on Sumatra Island (more than 2,600 km away).
“The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of 5 April, they were noticed in every quarter, and continued at intervals until the following day. The noise was, in the first instance, almost universally attributed to distant cannon; so much so, that a detachment of troops were marched from Jogjakarta, in the expectation that a neighboring post was attacked, and along the coast boats were in two instances dispatched in quest of a supposed ship in distress”. –Sir Thomas Stanford’s Memoir.
On the evening of April 10, 1815, the eruptions intensified. And a massive major eruption began to blow the volcano apart. Viewed from a settlement about 15 miles to the east, it seemed that three columns of flames shot into the sky. According to a witness on an island about 10 miles to the south, the entire mountain appeared to turn into "liquid fire. The eruption went up about 43 kilometers into the atmosphere — much higher than any airplane flying today — emitting a volume that is about 100 cubic kilometers of molten rock in the form of ash and pumice. According to Dr. Haraldur Sigurdsson, Professor of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, the volume remains by far the largest volume of any volcanic eruption of life on earth.
Hot pyroclastic flows cascaded down the mountain to the sea on all sides of the peninsula, wiping out the village of Tambora. Loud explosions were heard until the next evening, 11 April. The veil of ash had spread as far as West Java and South Sulawesi. A "nitrous" odour was noticeable in Batavia and heavy tephra-tinged rain fell, finally receding between 11 and 17 April.
The explosion is estimated to have been at scale 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index that left a caldera measuring 6–7 km across and 600–700 m deep. The density of fallen ash in Makassar was 636 kg/m². The explosion also cut down the height of Mount Tambora from approximately 4,300 meters to only 2,851 meters. The death toll was estimated at least over 71,000 people, marking it as the deadliest eruption in recorded history, of whom 11,000–12,000 were directly killed by the eruption.
After the eruption, uprooted trees were seen washed into the sea forming rafts of up to 5km while clouds of ash still covered the summit on 23 April. All vegetation was destroyed. Flames and aftershocks were still reported 4 years after the explosion. Aside from the volcanic eruption, a tsunami also struck islands in the Indonesian Archipelago on 10 April. They were up to 4 meters high in Sanggar. More of these struck Besuki, East Java, and the Moluccas Islands. The coarser ash particles fell after a week or two, but the finer ones stayed in the atmosphere for up to a year. Winds blew these ash particles around the globe, creating strange phenomena around the world, such as brilliantly colored sunsets and twilights.
The 1815 eruption released sulphur into the stratosphere, causing a global climate anomaly. What followed in 1816 was a disastrous episode in world’s history known as The Year Without a Summer. Also known as the Poverty Year, the Year There Was No Summer, or Eighteen Hundred Froze to Death, 1816 was a year where severe summer climate abnormalities caused average global temperatures to fall by about 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F), resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.
In the spring and summer of 1816, a persistent "dry fog" was observed in the northeastern US. The fog reddened and dimmed the sunlight, such that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Neither wind nor rainfall dispersed the "fog" which was characterized as a stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil. During the year, frost killed off most of the crops that had been planted all across U.S.A. In July and August, lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania. Rapid, dramatic temperature swings were common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures as high as 95 °F (35 °C) to near-freezing within hours.
Cool temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in the British Isles as well. Families in Wales travelled long distances as refugees, begging for food. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland, following the failure of wheat, oats, and potato harvests. The crisis was severe in Germany, where food prices rose sharply. The eruption of Mount Tambora also caused Hungary to experience brown snow. Italy experienced something similar, with red snow falling throughout the year. The cause of this is believed to have been volcanic ash in the atmosphere.
In China, the cold weather killed trees, rice crops, and even water buffaloes, especially in northern China. Floods destroyed many remaining crops. Mount Tambora’s eruption disrupted China’s monsoon season, resulting in overwhelming floods in the Yangtze Valley. In India the delayed summer monsoon caused late torrential rains that aggravated the spread of cholera from a region near the River Ganges in Bengal to as far as Moscow.
Today, Mt. Tambora still remains active although a whole lot more settled. To avid mountain climbers, Tambora remains a challenge to ascend its highest peak to observe the devastation that this mountain ravaged some 200 years ago, and experience the breathtaking beauty of nature revealed as viewed from its ominous caldera.
Sources: Wikipedia, npr.org, Natural Disaster at suite 101, history 1800’s
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