The Year Without a Summer

Everything has a history and everything occurs for a reason. Read how a volcanic eruption in 1815 caused years of winter across the world.

The Pacific Ring of Fire contains approximately 75% of the world active volcanoes. Of these 75%, most are situated near the Java Trench, the location in which all four tectonic plates meet. One of these volcanos is Mount Tambora, however, there is one thing that sets this volcano apart from the others on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Mount Tambora was thought to have been inactive. Tambora sits on the island Sumbawa and a dormant volcano allowed life to develop and thrive at the base of the mountain.

The Island of Sumbawa developed an indigenous population that occupied nearby villages. The total population was said to be around 170,000. Along with a large population on land, Sumbawa also became a major trade route as it was off the coast of the Java Sea. The Java Sea connects the East to West therefore many ships from all over the world travel around Sumbawa day in day out. The belief of Tambora’s inactiveness was proven incorrect on April 5th, 1815.

On April 5th, 1816, Mount Tambora witnessed their first eruption for thousands of years. Said to be inactive, the explosion took both people on land and people in the sea by surprise. Evacuations were unable to occur, and many lives were lost. Many sailors witnessed the large explosion that occurred on the island and one man, Thomas Raffles, said he thought he heard canons. What is interesting about Raffles was that he was located approximately 800 miles away from Tambora in the town of Jakarta. As a British official, Raffles kept a log and, on the 5th, he had written he hear cannons followed by falling ash in the morning of the 6th. The ash quickly turned the air in Jakarta into a thick fog before clearing up.

Now, what would you say if I told you this powerful explosion that could be heard over 800 miles away, destroyed villages and rocked boats was not the Tambora explosion I wanted to talk about. This explosion was only a warning signal to those in Sumbawa. The explosion that will occur only five days after the first explosion on Mount Tambora in thousands of years would be a volcanic eruption that will be felt throughout the whole world. 

April 10th, 1815. At around 7:00 pm, villagers begin to see smoke exiting the top of the volcano and soon after witness three columns of lava shoot out of Mount Tambora, one after another. Inside the lava, hot rocks rain down in villages almost 19 miles away from the volcano and community’s that survived the April 5th explosion will soon diminish. The chamber of the volcano continues to pour lava out until 10:00 pm when the entire mountain collapses in. For three hours, people of Tambora were witnessing a scale seven explosion from a volcano that gave no warning signals of it being active until April 5th. Three hours was enough to change the whole world. 

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, 10,000 die immediately with many more following due to respiratory diseases. Animals and plants die from heat and ash. Shockwaves in the form of tsunamis hit nearby coastal communities, flooding towns and villages. Many of the areas hit by the tsunami’s were small islands that would soon be completely underwater. Along with major tsunamis, high winds formed to create a massive whirlwind. When you were younger in science class you learned about the movement of particles. It was really simple, in solid they are close together and in gas they are far apart with more space to move. The next step of the lesson what temperature. Objects can expand if heated because the particles have more energy and can shrink if cold as the particles slow down. The same goes for gas and the consequences of heating a gas was seen after Tambora. 

Following the Tambora eruption, the temperature of the air rose a significant number of degrees in a very short period of time. Science class, when a gas heats up, particles move faster and when particles move faster, air gets pulled in. Due to the air temperature, a vacuum is formed. This vacuum is also known as a whirlwind. When a whirlwind is formed, objects can get picked up and carried far way and the whirlwind formed from Tambora is no different. When Tambora erupted, it sent a massive amount of ash 25 miles into the air and was picked up and spread by this whirlwind. Other gases also get picked up and soon sulfur dioxide enters the earth’s stratosphere to mix with hydroxide. These two gases become mixed together to form aerosol droplets that spread across the globe, many gathering in the northern hemisphere. 

What is significant about these droplets is that they do not fall back to earth but rather stay floating just above the earth’s gravitational pull. These droplets begin to reflect sun rays back into space and the consequences of this is seen in 1816. Global temperature begins to fall the longer these aerosols backed sun from hitting earth. This created an event known as “The Year Without a Summer.”

What does this cause? The West sees food shortages, displacement and death. What makes this year even more significant was that was that 1815 saw the end of the Napoleonic wars. Countries in Europe were already depleted of money, areas were destroyed and many returning soldiers were out of a job. This allowed the effects of Tambora to be felt even more significantly. By this point you may be asking what happened and how did it happen. Yes, the aerosols blocked the sun, but studies show it blocked only 0.5% of the UV rays so extreme coldness would have to have been a cause of something else. That something else was a jet stream. 

This jet stream was not a new concept. Usually, this stream would come in from the gulf and head straight through Europe in the summer. Temperatures were hot, precipitation was perfect, and crops were growing perfectly. This of course didn’t occur in 1816. While 0.5% doesn’t greatly affect temperature, it does affect air cycles. In 1816, the jet stream fell too low and instead of that hot air from the gulf, cold arctic air was brought to Europe. It did not start off so bad with mild temperature but very soon countries plunged into coldness. Many storms are brought in through the stream and rain was common. As air got colder, snow took over. Warm air was still present in Europe but not enough the counter all the coldness and its effects. Yes, some days in the summer of 1816 were warm but not for long.

The Year Without a Summer was an interesting time. Cold climate was being felt throughout the West, mainly in Europe. One of the main consequences of the constant cold weather is that crops could not grow. Crops were unable to sprout which left towns with no food to eat and neighbouring towns with no food to lend. Being felt across the West meant food also could not be imported into countries. Communities has to resort to killing their livestock for a substantial amount of food, but this too quickly ran out as animals were not reproducing or being brought in. Many people during 1816 would suffer from starvation and many would die. 

During 1816, Canada also saw a large rise in population. Trying to get away from the cold, many Europeans left to live in the Eastern part of Canada however, to their surprise, Canada was witnessing the same weather. The Year Without a Summer was also a time of mass movements of people across seas but what I find to be very intriguing is how communication in 1816 was poor therefore, many did not know the entire world was experience cold weather. What is even more intriguing though is that no one, except for those living close to Sumbawa, knew that a volcano had erupted, and nobody knew cold weather was a consequence of it. It is not until the summer of 1817 that the aerosols blocking the sun being to dissipate. It is a long process to get the world back in order but by 1818, climate normalcy is restored.

I feel it is only right of me to end this story of the eruption of Mount Tambora on a positive note. You may be wondering what could be positive about the world going cold, people dying from lava or starvation? Well, this event influenced some of the greatest works of art and literature. Prior to the world turning cold, the world witnessed some beautiful sunsets as a result of the aerosols in the air. These sunsets were documented by painter William Turner in his “Lancaster Sands” series. Off in Switzerland, a group of writers from England were vacationing and for 130 of their 152 stay in Switzerland, it rained. Stuck inside, the group read a German ghost story and mixed with the cold weather, gave inspiration for their next pieces of work. Poet Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” was written based on the Year Without a Summer but more notably, Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” was also written during this time. 

One event could be the cause of some bad and good things that happen around the world. One event can cause a chain reaction that could last one year, five years or even 50 years and no one may know it. The only way to know for sure is to go back in time. This is what’s amazing about history. Everything has a history and if you can go far back enough you can see why everything happened when it happened.