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Climatic, environmental and human consequences of the largest known historic eruption: Tambora volcano (Indonesia) 1815

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The 1815 eruption of Tambora volcano (Sumbawa island, Indonesia) expelled around 140 gt of magma (equivalent to ≈50 km3 of dense rock), making it the largest known historic eruption. More than 95% by mass of the ejecta was erupted as pyroclastic flows, but 40% by mass of the material in these flows ended up as ash fallout from the 'phoenix' clouds that lofted above the flows during their emplacement. Although they made only a minor contribution to the total magnitude of the eruption, the short-lived plinian explosions that preceded the climactic eruption and caldera collapse were powerful, propelling plumes up to 43 km altitude. Over 71 000 people died during, or in the aftermath of, the eruption, on Sumbawa and the neighbouring island of Lombok. The eruption injected ≈60 mt of sulfur into the stratosphere, six times more than was released by the 1991 Pinatubo eruption. This formed a global sulfate aerosol veil in the stratosphere, which resulted in pronounced climate perturbations. Anomalously cold weather hit the northeastern USA, maritime provinces of Canada, and Europe the following year. 1816 came to be known as the 'Year without a summer' in these regions. Crop failures were widespread and the eruption has been implicated in accelerated emigration from New England, and widespread outbreaks of epidemic typhus. These events provide important insights into the volcanic forcing of climate, and the global risk of future eruptions on this scale.
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Climatic, environmental and human
consequences of the largest known
historic eruption: Tambora volcano
(Indonesia) 1815
Clive Oppenheimer
Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Downing Place, Cambridge
CB2 3EN, UK
Abstract: The 1815 eruption of Tambora volcano (Sumbawa island, Indonesia) expelled around
140 gt of magma (equivalent to »50 km3of dense rock), making it the largest known historic
eruption. More than 95% by mass of the ejecta was erupted as pyroclastic flows, but 40% by mass
of the material in these flows ended up as ash fallout from the ‘phoenix’ clouds that lofted above
the flows during their emplacement. Although they made only a minor contribution to the total
magnitude of the eruption, the short-lived plinian explosions that preceded the climactic
eruption and caldera collapse were powerful, propelling plumes up to 43 km altitude. Over
71 000 people died during, or in the aftermath of, the eruption, on Sumbawa and the neigh-
bouring island of Lombok. The eruption injected »60 mt of sulfur into the stratosphere, six times
more than was released by the 1991 Pinatubo eruption. This formed a global sulfate aerosol veil
in the stratosphere, which resulted in pronounced climate perturbations. Anomalously cold
weather hit the northeastern USA, maritime provinces of Canada, and Europe the following
year. 1816 came to be known as the Year without a summer’ in these regions. Crop failures were
widespread and the eruption has been implicated in accelerated emigration from New England,
and widespread outbreaks of epidemic typhus. These events provide important insights into the
volcanic forcing of climate, and the global risk of future eruptions on this scale.
Key words: atmosphere, climate, Tambora 1815, volcano, ‘year without a summer’
Progress in Physical Geography 27,2 (2003) pp. 230–259
© Arnold 2003 10.1191/0309133303pp379ra
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light
Extract from Darkness by Lord Byron, 1816
(J.J. McGann and B. Weller, editors, The complete poetical works, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 7 vols., 1980–92.)
1 Introduction
Two of the strongest currents in contemporary volcanology concern risk mitigation and
the coupling of volcanism to the Earth system. Of course, these very broad motivations
encompass a great variety of individual lines of enquiry but it is true that they are at the
heart of much volcanological research. In the past 20–30 years, significant advances
have been made in the theoretical and experimental description of volcanic processes,
such as the physics of explosive eruptions, and the atmospheric transport and
deposition of ash. These approaches have borne fruit not least because they provide a
secure basis for developing tools to ‘invert’ the geological record of past eruptions to
yield quantitative estimates of important eruption parameters. Over the same period,
improved surveillance techniques (e.g., seismology, geodesy, geochemistry, satellite
remote sensing) and computational capabilities have led to opportunities to calibrate
and validate these theoretical treatments. Satellite observations following the 1991
eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines, for example, have yielded much information
on the response of the atmosphere-climate system to sulfur-rich explosive eruptions
(McCormick et al., 1995; Hansen et al., 1997; Robock, 2000). However, the modern
instrumental record only spans a modest range of eruption intensities, sulfur yields and
durations. To understand the hazards and climatic consequences of eruptions signifi-
cantly larger than Pinatubo, we have to explore the records of historical and prehistoric
volcanism. In this regard, the largest known eruption in history, that of Tambora
volcano, Indonesia, in 1815, offers vital insights.
Tambora may once have been the highest peak of the East Indies. Sailing eastwards
past Bali, it appeared as high on the horizon, despite being further away, as 3726-m-
high Mount Rinjani on Lombok island. Stothers (1984) reckoned its height must have
exceeded 4300 m. We will never know for certain because the cone was toppled in April
1815 by the largest eruption of recorded history. The events resulted in the greatest
known death toll attributable to a volcanic eruption (Tanguy
et al., 1998), and the global
reach of the climatic consequences of the eruption has been implicated in the ‘The last
great subsistence crisis in the Western World’ (Post, 1977). The aim of this paper is to
review the events and consequences of the 1815 eruption and to consider their implica-
tions for assessing the impact of future explosive eruptions on this scale.
C. Oppenheimer 231
232 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
II The eruption
Shortly before the eruption, Java had fallen under British control in 1811, and Sir
Stamford Raffles was the appointed Lieutenant Governor. He took a keen interest in the
culture and natural history of the island and the Indonesian archipelago, and much of
what we know about the Tambora eruption is handed down in his
history of Java
(Raffles
1817) and his memoirs (Raffles, 1830). These, and other documents and letters
published in the
Asiatic Journal
(an absorbing mine of intelligence information, literary
reviews and news items on the region, which began publication in 1816), furnish us
with fascinating insights into the nature and consequences of the eruption. These con-
temporary accounts were carefully reviewed by Stothers (1984) and Sigurdsson and
Carey (1992) but since the original documents are not that easy to come by, extracts
from them are reproduced in the following sections. Other important sources of
information on the Tambora eruption are Post (1977), Stommel and Stommel (1979,
1983) and Harrington (1992).
1 Initial blasts
Tambora forms the Sanggar peninsula on Sumbawa, one of the fleet of predominantly
volcanic islands rising from the Flores sea, Indonesia (Figure 1). It appears to have been
Figure 1 Landsat Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) browse
image showing the western half of Sumbawa island. The island’s
complex perimeter reflects the interconnection of several volcanic
peaks and massifs that rise from the Flores Sea. The Sanggar
peninsula is dominated by Tambora volcano, which rises to a
»6-km-diameter summit caldera (Copyright USGS; source:
http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov)
C. Oppenheimer 233
considered extinct (perhaps even nonvolcanic) until 1812 when it began rumbling and
emitting small ash clouds. Magma had clearly begun ascending to the surface. Three
years later, during the evening of Wednesday 5 April 1815, the first serious eruption
began, lasting for around 2 hours (depositing layer F-2 in Figure 2). From Raffles’
memoirs, we have the following account (Raffles, 1830):
The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of the 5th of 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
Djocjocarta, in the expectation that a neighbouring post was attacked, and along the coast boats were in two
instances dispatched in quest of a supposed ship in distress.
On the following morning, however, a slight fall of ashes removed all doubt as to the cause of the sound, and
it is worthy of remark, that as the eruption continued, the sound appeared to be so close, that in each district it
seemed near at hand, it was attributed to an eruption from the Marapi, the Gunung Kloot or the Gunung Bromo.
Figure 2 Stratigraphy of tephra deposits from the Tambora eruption
logged at Gambah, 25 km from the summit
Source: modified from Sigurdsson, H. and Carey, S. 1989: Plinian and
co-ignimbrite tephra fall from the 1815 eruption of Tambora volcano.
Bulletin of Volcanology
51, 243–70, and used with the permission of
Springer-Verlag GmbH
234 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
The Honourable Company’s Cruiser Benares was at Makassar (Ujung Pandang,
Sulawesi), 350 km north-northeast of Tambora on the 5 April. An extract from a private
letter written by the commander reads:
On the fifth of April a firing of cannon was heard at Macassar: the sound appeared to come from the southward,
and continued at intervals all the afternoon. Towards sun-set the reports seemed to approach much nearer, and
sounded like heavy guns occasionally, with slighter reports between. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 165)
By carefully examining the dispersal pattern of lithic fragments (accidental clasts
derived from conduit and vent erosion rather than new magma) in the tephra layer
resulting from this event, Sigurdsson and Carey (1989) estimated that the eruption
intensity exceeded 108kg s–1, propelling the plume to 33 km above sea-level, and that
the eruption magnitude (total mass) was 1.11 ´1012 kg. People living around the
volcano sent delegates to the government authorities in Bima to request help in inves-
tigating the eruption. The authorities responded by sending a man by the name of Israel
who reached the scene on 9 April.
2 Cataclysmic eruption
After a lull in activity, a second major eruption began around 19:00 h local time on
Monday 10th April (depositing layer F-4 in Figure 2). This event lasted less than 3 hours
but was stronger, with the discharge rate estimated at approaching 3 ´108kg s–1, and
the eruption cloud soaring to 43 km (Sigurdsson and Carey, 1989). This height may only
have been exceeded in the past two millennia by the ‘ultraplinian’ eruption of Taupo,
New Zealand, in 181 AD (which reached an estimated 51 km; Carey and Sigurdsson,
1989). Perhaps the best eyewitness account of this phase of the eruption is from
Lieutenant Owen Philipps, who was dispatched by Raffles to Sumbawa with quantities
of rice to ‘proceed and adjust the delivery thereof, with instruction, at the same time, to
ascertain, as nearly as possible, the local effects of the volcano(Raffles, 1830). While
staying in Dompu, he met with the Rajah of Sanggir who miraculously survived the
eruption:
As the Rajah was himself a spectator of the later eruption, the following account which he gave me is perhaps
more to be depended upon than any other I can possibly obtain. About seven p.m. on the 10th April, three
distinct columns of flame burst forth near the top of the Tomboro mountain (all of them apparently within the
verge of the crater), and after ascending separately to a very great height, their tops united in the air in a
troubled and confused manner.
Up to this point, only around 1.8 km3(dense-rock equivalent, DRE) of magma had been
erupted in total, 1.18 km3of which was provided by the F-4 phase (Figure 3(a)).
Gravitational ‘fountain’ collapse of the convecting central eruption column ensued
shortly before 20:00 h, probably as the eruption vent widened and water content in the
magma decreased. A strong ‘whirlwind’, interpreted as one or more pyrcoclastic flows,
soon hit Sanggar, destroying the village. Over the next 3–4 days around 50 km3(DRE)
of magma cascaded down the mountain as pumice flows, destroying Tambora village,
and generating immense co-ignimbrite (‘phoenix’) clouds (Figures 3(b), (4)). Of the
resulting deposit 40% by mass is composed of ash fallout from these clouds (Sigurdsson
and Carey, 1989). Israel, the representative sent by the regional government was among
those killed at this time. Philipps recorded the following from his interview with the
Rajah (Raffles, 1830):
C. Oppenheimer 235
Figure 3 Isopach maps of (a) the 10 April 1815 plinian eruption, F-4
(in centimetres, modifed after Sigurdsson, H. and Carey, S. 1989:
Plinian and co-ignimbrite tephra fall from the 1815 eruption of
Tambora volcano.
Bulletin of Volcanology
51, 243–70, and used with the
permission of Springer-Verlag GmbH): and (b) the long-range phoenix
cloud ashfall based on contemporary reports
Source: from Self, S., Rampino, M.R., Newton, M.S. and Wolff, J.A. 1984:
Volcanological study of the great Tambora eruption of 1815. Geology
12, 659–63, and used with permission of the Geological Society of
America
(a)
(b)
236 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
In a short time, the whole mountain next Sang’ir appeared like a body of liquid fire, extending itself in every
direction. The fire and columns of flame continued to rage with unabated fury, until the darkness caused by the
quantity of falling matter obscured it at about 8 p.m. Stones, at this time, fell very thick at Sang’ir; some of them
as large as two fists, but generally not larger than walnuts.
Between 9 and 10 p.m. ashes began to fall, and soon after a violent whirlwind ensued, which blew down nearly
every house in the village of Sang’ir, carrying the ataps or roofs, and light parts away with it. In the part of
Sang’ir adjoining Tomboro its effects were much more violent, tearing up by the roots the largest trees and
carrying them into the air, together with men, horses, cattle, and whatever else came within its influence.
The whirlwind lasted about an hour. No explosions were heard till the whirlwind had ceased, at about 11 a.m.
From midnight till the evening of the 11th, they continued without intermission; after that time their violence
moderated, and they were only heard at intervals, but the explosions did not cease entirely until the 15th July.
The crew of a vessel sailing from Timor also appear to have witnessed the paroxysmal
phase of the eruption, for they observed the foot of the volcano engulfed in flames and
the summit encircled by dark clouds, with fire and flames shooting out. Bima remained
in complete darkness until noon on 12 April, and ash fall there was so heavy that most
Figure 4 Distribution of 1815 ignimbrites (shaded areas) based on
field observations and considerations of slope angle
Source: modified from Sigurdsson, H. and Carey, S. 1989: Plinian and
co-ignimbrite tephra fall from the 1815 eruption of Tambora volcano.
Bulletin of Volcanology
51, 243–70, and used with the permission of
Springer-Verlag GmbH
C. Oppenheimer 237
roofs collapsed, including that of the Resident’s house (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2:
167). Curiously, the Resident appears to have singled out 14 April as the night of the
most terrific explosions, which were like ‘a heavy mortar fired close to his ear’ (Asiatic
Journal, August 1816, 2: 166). This could suggest the climactic phase of the eruption,
though this seems unlikely in view of the geographically widespread reports of
concussions heard on the night of the 10–11 April. After leaving Bima, the Benares
passed close to Tambora on 23 April, providing a picture of the appearance of the
volcano following its convulsions:
In passing it at the distance of about six miles, the summit was not visible, being enveloped in clouds of smoke
and ashes, the sides smoking in several places, apparently from the lava which has flowed down it not being
cooled; several streams have reached the sea; a very considerable one to the N.N.W. of the mountain, the course
of which was plainly discernible, both from the black colour of the lava, contrasted with the ashes on each side
of it, and the smoke which arose from every part of it. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 165–67)
3 Distant effects
The distant effects of the eruption were astonishing. Explosions were heard through the
night of Monday 10 to Tuesday 11 April in Benkulen (1800 km away), Mukomuko (2000
km), and perhaps Trumon (2600 km) on Sumatra (Figure 5). The following report came
from Fort Marlborough in Sumatra in May 1815:
Figure 5 Map of the Indonesian archipelago indicating names
mentioned in the text. Circle indicates approximate 5-cm isopach for
the phoenix cloud ashfall
Source: from Stothers, R. 1984: The great Tambora eruption in 1815 and
its aftermath.
Science
224, 1191–98, and used with permission of
Science
238 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
A somewhat remarkable instance has occurred recently on this coast. A noise, as if firing of guns, has been
heard, nearly at the same time, at different stations, lying between 30’ and 30’ of south latitude.
The noise was heard by some individuals in this settlement, on the morning of the 11 April. In the course of that
day, some deputies (or head men) of villages situated at a considerable distance towards the hills, came down,
and reported that they had heard a continual heavy firing since the earliest dawn. It was feared that some feud
had broken out into actual hostility, between villages in the interior. People were sent to make inquiries; but all
was found tranquil.
Our chiefs here, immediately decided, that it was only a contest between Jin (the very devil), with some of his
awkward squad, and the manes of their departed ancestors, who had passed their period of probation in the
mountain, and were in progress towards paradise.
The most natural method of solving the difficulty, is, possibly, by supposing, that there must have been a violent
eruption from some one of the numerous volcanoes amidst our stupendous mountains, centrally situated
between Moco-Moco and Semanco. If so, we shall not, perhaps, ever learn the particulars; for we have very little
communications with, and still less knowledge of, the mountaineers (though some of them are said to be Lord
Monboddo’s men, and have tails,) or of the country they inhabit. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 164)
It was universally remarked in the eastern districts of Java that the explosions were
tremendous, with sufficient violence to shake houses. The Resident of Surakarta (Solo)
noted that:
On Tuesday the 11th the reports were more frequent and violent through the whole day: one of the most
powerful occurred in the afternoon about 2 o’clock, this was succeeded, for nearly an hour by a tremulous
motion of the earth, distinctly indicated by the tremor of large window frames; another comparatively violent
explosion occurred late in the afternoon, but the fall of dust was scarcely perceptible. The atmosphere appeared
to be loaded with a thick vapour: the Sun was rarely visible, and only at short intervals appearing very
obscurely behind a semitransparent substance. (Raffles, 1817)
A correspondent in Gresik (west of Surabaya) records that:
In travelling through the district on the 13th, the appearances were described with very little variation from my
account, and I am universally told that no one remembers, nor does their tradition record so tremendous an
eruption. Some look upon it as typical of a change, of the re-establishment of the former government; others
account for it in an easy way, by reference to the superstitious notions of their legendary tales, and say that the
celebrated Nyai Loroh Kidul has been marrying one of her children on which occasion she has been firing
salutes from her supernatural artillery. They call the ashes the dregs of her ammunition. (Raffles, 1817: 242–43)
Effects were severe in Banyuwangi on the eastern tip of Java, where ash accumulated to
a thickness of 23 cm. This extract of a letter written in that town indicates the
uncommon magnitude of the event:
All reports concur in stating, that so violent and extreme an eruption has not happened within the memory of
the oldest inhabitants, nor within tradition. They speak of similar effects in lesser degree, when an eruption took
place from the volcano Carang Assum, in Bali, about seven years ago; and it was at first supposed that this
mountain was the seat of the eruption in the present instance. The Balinese attributed the event to a recent
dispute between the two Rajahs of Bali Baliling, which terminated in the death of the younger Rajah, by order
of his brother. (Raffles, 1817: 243–44)
Light southeasterly monsoonal winds were blowing at around 6 m s–1, accounting for
the heavier ashfall west of Tambora. Many places within a 600 km radius remained
pitch black for one or two days, accompanied by dramatic lowering of air temperature.
The Resident in Surakarta remarked that:
On the 12th a considerable darkness was occasioned by the abundance of the fall of dust: every operation which
required strong light was almost impossible within doors. The gloomy appearance caused by the rain of dust
‘Udshan abu’ need not be described as it was uniform in every part of this Island to which the discharge
C. Oppenheimer 239
extended. It may be remarkable that an unusual sensation of chillings was felt during the whole of the 12 . . .
his was in great measure (tho’ probably not exclusively) occasioned by the temperature: the thermometer at 10
O’Clock AM stood at 75 and 1/2 degrees of Fahrenheit Scale. (Raffles, 1830)
Presumably, Raffles himself experienced the event, since it is recorded that ‘ashes fell at
Buitenzorg, the residence of the Governor, 30 miles south of Batavia’ (Asiatic Journal,
February 1816, 1: 117). The commander of the Benares, still anchored at Macassar,
recorded that:
During the night of the eleventh the firing was again heard but much louder; and towards morning the reports
were in quick succession, and sometimes like three or four guns fired together, and so heavy, that they shook
the ships, as they did the houses in the fort. Some of the reports seemed so near that I sent people to the mast-
head to look out for the flashes, and immediately the day dawned, I weighed and stood to the southward, with
a view to ascertaining the cause. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 165)
Spotting a ship approaching from the south around daybreak, the captain sent a party
to meet it to glean further intelligence on the events. The Dutchman commanding that
vessel had also heard the firing all night, and also on 5 April when he had been at
Salajer island. Initially mistaking the concussions for an attack by pirates, soldiers had
taken up battle positions in the fort but, as no ships appeared, they surmized that an
eruption must have happened on Sumbawa. The commander of the Benares went
ashore to meet the resident of Macassar, Captain Wood, whose house had been shaken
by some of the detonations. By 08:00 h the sky was increasingly gloomy, and the ship’s
crew soon had to contend with heavy ashfall:
. . . it was very apparent that some extraordinary occurrence had taken place. The face of the heavens to the
southward and westward had assumed the most dismal and lowering aspect, and it was much darker than
when the sun rose. At first it had the appearance of a very heavy squall or storm approaching, but as it came
nearer it assumed a dusky red appearance, and continued to spread very fast over the heavens. By ten it was so
dark that I could scarcely discern the ship from the shore, though not a mile distant. I then returned on board.
It was now evident that an eruption had taken place from some volcano, and that the air was filled with ashes
or volcanic dust, which already began to fall on the decks. By eleven the whole of the heavens was obscured,
except a small space near the horizon to the eastward; the wind being from that quarter prevented for a short
time the approach of the ashes; it appeared like a streak of light at day-break, the mountains in Celebes being
clearly visible, while every other part of the horizon was enveloped in darkness. The ashes now began to fall in
showers, and the appearance altogether was truly awful and alarming. By noon, the light that had remained in
the eastern part of the horizon disappeared, and complete darkness had covered the face of day: our decks were
soon covered with falling matter; the awnings were spread fore and aft to prevent it as much as possible from
getting below, but it was so light and subtle that it pervaded every part of the ship.
The darkness was so profound throughout the remainder of the day, that I never saw any thing equal to it in
the darkest night; it was impossible to see your hand when held up close to the eye. The ashes continued to fall
without intermission through the night. At six in the morning, when the sun ought to have been seen, it still
continued as dark as ever; but at half past seven I had the satisfaction to perceive that the darkness evidently
decreased, and by eight I could faintly discern objects on deck. From this time it began to get lighter very fast,
and by half past nine the shore was distinguishable; the ashes falling in considerable quantities, though not so
heavily as before. The appearance of the ship, when daylight returned, was most extraordinary; the masts,
rigging, decks, and every part being covered with the falling matter; it had the appearance of a calcined pumice
stone, nearly the colour of wood ashes; it lay in heaps of a foot in depth in many parts of the deck, and I am
convinced several tons weight were thrown over board; for although a perfect impalpable powder or dust when
it fell, it was, when compressed, of considerable weight; a pint measure filled with it weighed 121
/
4oz.; it was
perfectly tasteless, and did not affect the eyes with any painful sensations; it had a faint burning smell, but
nothing like sulphur. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 165–66; note that this report gives a measure of the density
of the uncompacted ash of around 0.6 kg m–3, a typical value for fresh ash deposits.)
240 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
The Sun finally reappeared by noon on Wednesday 12 April, though only faintly
penetrating a dusky and still atmosphere yet charged with ashes. These conditions
prevailed up to 15 April. Meanwhile, the crew of the
Benares set to readying the ship for
passage:
It took several days to clear the ship of the ashes; when mixed with water they formed a tenacious mud, difficult
to be washed off. My chronometer stopped, owing, I imagine, to some particles of dust having penetrated into
it. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 166)
From the estimated magnitude and duration of this ignimbritic phase of the eruption,
the mean intensity must have been around 5 ´108kg s–1. Woods and Wohletz (1991)
calculated that this would have propelled the phoenix clouds to around 23 km above
sea-level, a modest height considering the eruption intensity but reflecting the lower
thermal efficiency of phoenix plumes compared with plinian columns (in terms of the
entrainment of ambient air and heat exchange to it from hot clasts).
4 Tsunami
The pumice flows engulfed the Sanggar peninsula and crossed the sea, reaching the
small island of Moyo due west of the volcano. Tsunami were generated as pyroclastic
flows punched into the sea, and were observed in many places on the night of the 10/11
April. The waves reached a peak height of 4 m at Sanggar around 22:00 h, inundating
the shore:
The sea rose nearly twelve feet higher than it had ever been known to do before, and completely spoiled the
only small spots of rice land in Sang’ir, sweeping away houses and every thing within its reach. (Philipps,
reported in Raffles, 1830)
Considerable damage was also evident in Bima, as related to the commander of the
Benares by the Resident:
The wind was still during the whole time, but the sea uncommonly agitated. The waves rolled in upon the
shore, and filled the lower part of the houses a foot deep; every prow and boat was forced from the anchorage,
and driven on shore; several large prows are now lying a considerable distance above high water mark. (Asiatic
Journal, 2: 167)
The tsunami hit Besuki in eastern Java (500 km) by midnight (therefore travelling
around 70 m s–1), and Surabaya, with a height of 1–2 m, throwing boats inland (Asiatic
Journal, February 1816, 1: 117).
Flow deposits must have considerably extended the Sanggar peninsula coastline by
building deltas of pyroclastic material, as has been observed recently in the case of the
Soufrière Hills Volcano eruption on Montserrat. Abundant carbonized tree-trunks that
can be found preserved in the deposits testify to the high temperatures of the pumice
flows. In some coastal areas, the flow deposits contain circular depressions several
hundred metres in diameter, which are probably remnants of explosion craters formed
as the hot flows mixed with seawater. Since the volcano is almost completely
surrounded by the sea, this interaction may have resulted in a nearly circular 40-km-
diameter ash curtain at the time. Inland, the flow deposits have welded together.
C. Oppenheimer 241
5 Pumice rafts
Massive rafts of pumice and tree trunks, some of them several kilometres across, floated
in the Gulf of Saleh and the Flores Sea. Some pumice rafts were almost 5 km across, and
still hindered navigation between Moyo and Sanggar three years after the eruption. The
Benares encountered them when it first approached Sumbawa, and soon ran into diffi-
culties:
On the morning of the fifteenth weighed from Macassar with a very light wind, and on the eighteenth made the
island of Sumbawa. On approaching the coast, passed through great quantities of pumice-stone floating on the
sea, which at first had the appearance of shoals; so much so, that I hove too, and sent a boat to examine one,
which at the distance of less than a mile I took for a dry sand bank, upwards of three miles in length, with black
rocks upon several parts of it, concluding it to have been thrown up during the eruption. It proved to be a
complete mass of pumice floating on the sea, with great numbers of large trunks of trees and logs among it, that
appeared to be burnt and shivered as if blasted by lightning. The boat had much difficulty in pulling through
it; and until we got into the entrance of Bima bay, the sea was literally covered with shoals of pumice and
floating timber.
On the nineteenth arrived in Bima bay; on coming to anchor grounded on the bank off Bima Town, shoaling
suddenly from eight fathoms. As the tide was rising hove off again without any difficulty or danger. I imagine,
the anchorage at Bima must have altered considerably, as, where we grounded, the Ternate cruizer, a few
months since, lay at anchor in six fathoms. The shores of the bay had a most dreary appearance, being entirely
covered with ashes, even up to the summit of the mountains. The perpendicular depth of the ashes, as measured
in the vicinity of Bima town, I found to be three inches and three quarters. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 166)
The pumice rafts were driven by southeast trade winds and by the South Equatorial
Current. The Honourable Company’s ship Fairlie, crossing the Indian Ocean on route
to Calcutta, encountered rafts between 1 and 3 October 1815, about 3600 km west of
Tambora, though the crew mistakenly attributed them to the eruption of a nearby
submarine volcano:
On the 1st of October our latitude at noon was 13 deg. 25 min. S. longitude 84 deg. 0 min. E. we observed
quantities of stuff floating on the surface of the water, which had, to us, the appearance of seaweed, but were
quite astonished to find it burnt cinders, evidently volcanic. The sea was covered with it during the two next
days. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 161)
6 Aftermath
Tambora continued rumbling intermittently at least up to August 1819. The paroxysmal
phase of the eruption rapidly drained the magma reservoir and was accompanied by
collapse of the volcano, toppling a formerly 4000 m (perhaps more than 4300 m
according to Stothers, 1984) high summit and creating a 6 km wide, 1 km deep caldera.
Today, Tambora’s crater rim reaches only 2850 m above sea-level, easily surpassed by
Rinjani volcano on the neighbouring island of Lombok.
A small cone and lava flow, Doro Afi Toi, erupted within the caldera sometime
between 1847 and 1913. A strong earthquake recorded on 13 January 1909 may be
related to this activity. There is no evidence for more recent eruptions.
242 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
III Atmospheric and climatic impacts
The sulfur mass injected into the stratosphere by the eruption has been estimated by
several independent methods including modelling of polar ice core sulfate concentra-
tions (Figure 6), petrological measurements of 1815 tephra, and analysis of atmospheric
optical phenomena (Figure 7, Table 1). The results vary by an order of magnitude but
excluding the outlying estimates, the figures average around 60 Tg of sulfur, i.e., six
times as much as the eruption of Pinatubo in 1991 (Read
et al., 1993). It is difficult to
partition this total between the different phases of the eruption and, in particular, to
determine the fractions derived from plinian versus phoenix clouds. Certainly, this
Figure 6 Sulfate concentration in ice cores from (a) Siple Station,
Antarctica, and (b) Central Greenland, accurately dated by counting
oxygen isotope seasonal variations. The spikes prior to Tambora point
to a major equatorial eruption in 1809, which injected around 25–30 Tg
of sulfur into the stratosphere, but the culprit has yet to be identified.
This unknown eruption may explain why global temperatures were
already lower than usual before the eruption of Tambora. Tambora’s
sulfate anomaly is one of the two largest in the Antarctic ice cores for
at least 500 years (along with that associated with the 1453 Kuwae
eruption in the South Pacific, Cole-Dai
et al., 1997)
Source: based on data in Dai
et al. (1991)
(a) (b)
C. Oppenheimer 243
Figure 7 Visible waveband optical depths (above background) at
northern latitudes through time after the eruption, based on astronom-
ical observations and ice core sulfate deposition. Note that Zielinski
(1995) estimates a lower range of optical depths from 0.14 to 0.35 based
on the GISP2 ice core sulfate record
Source: from Stothers, R. 1984: The great Tambora eruption in 1815
and its aftermath. Science
224, 1191–98, and used with permission of
Science.
Table 1 Estimates of the sulfur yield of the 1815 eruption of Tambora
Method Sulfur yield Reference
(Tg S)
Petrologicala>10 Devine
et al., 1984
Petrologicala>43 Sigurdsson and Carey, 1992
Optical depth estimates based on >60 Stothers, 1984
astronomical observations
Antarctic ice core >49 Legrand and Delmas, 1987
Antarctic ice core 120 Langway
et al., 1988
Antarctic ice core 100 Delmas
et al., 1992
Greenland ice core >60–80 Clausen and Hammer, 1988
Greenland ice core >28 Zielinski, 1995
Extrapolation of experimental petrological >98 Scaillet et al., 1998
data
aDifferential sulfur content of matrix glass and melt inclusions scaled by eruption magnitude.
244 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
amount of sulfur can be expected to have had strong impacts on regional and global
climate.
Spectacular sunsets and twilights were observed in London in the summer of 1815.
The twilight glows appeared orange or red near the horizon, purple to pink above, and
were sometimes streaked with diverging dark bands. In the spring and summer of 1816
a persistent ‘dry fog’ was observed in the northeastern USA. According to a report from
New York, the fog reddened and dimmed the Sun such that sunspots were visible to the
naked eye. Neither wind nor rain dispersed the ‘fog’, identifying it as a stratospheric
sulfate aerosol veil. It is claimed that some of the painter J.M.W. Turner’s work in this
period, characterized by lurid orange and red skies, was inspired by the volcanically
induced stratospheric optics.
There is also abundant evidence for extreme weather in 1816, especially in the spring
and summer in northeastern North America, and much of Europe. The folkloric
memories of ‘the year without a summer ’, 1816, still command popular interest in the
northeastern USA. Baron (1992) looked at contemporary meteorological data for the
region, including measurements of temperature, precipitation and wind direction. On 4
June 1816, frosts were reported in Connecticut and, by the following day, most of New
England was gripped by a cold front. On 6 June, snow fell in Albany, New York, and
Dennysville, Maine, and there were killing frosts at Fairfield, Connecticut. Severe frosts
had spread as far south as Trenton, New Jersey, the next day. Such conditions recurred
over the next 3 months, drastically shortening the growing season (Figure 8) and
resulting in almost total failure of main crops. A good impression of the disturbances is
recorded in weather logs for Williamstown, Massachusets, compiled by Chester Dewey,
who was professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Williams College, MA:
Frosts are extremely rare here in either of the summer months; but this year there was frost in each of them . . .
June 6th the temperature about 44’ through the day–snowed several times . . . June 7th no frost, but the ground
frozen, and water frozen in many places . . . Moist earth was frozen half an inch thick, and could be raised from
round Indian corn, the corn slipping through and standing unhurt. June 8th, some ice was seen in the morning
. . . earth very little frozen . . . wind still strong and piercing from the N.W. Cucumbers and other vegetables
nearly destroyed. . . . June 10th, severe frost in the morning . . . . Ten days after the frost, the trees on the sides
of the hills presented for miles the appearance of having been scorched. June 29th and 30th some frost. July 9th,
frost, which killed parts of cucumbers. August 22, cucumbers killed by the frost. August 29th, severe frost. Some
fields of Indian corn were killed on the low grounds, while that on the higher was unhurt. Very little Indian corn
became ripe in the region. (Dewey, 1821)
Diaries also record personal experiences of the extraordinary weather of 1816.
Chauncey Jerome of Plymouth, Connecticut, writing in 1860, recalled:
I well remember the 7th of June . . . dressed throughout with thick woollen clothes and an overcoat on. My
hands got so cold that I was obliged to lay down my tools and put on a pair of mittens . . . On the 10th of June,
my wife brought in some clothes that had been spread on the ground the night before, which were frozen stiff
as in winter. (From Stommel and Stommel, 1983)
Canada also experienced severe weather and the same cold wave that hit the USA. In
Montreal, snow fell on 6 and 8 June 1816. 30 cm of snow accumulated near Quebec City
from 6 to 10 June.
Briffa and Jones (1992) examined contemporary meteorological observations and
tree-ring chronologies to reconstruct 1816 temperature, pressure and precipitation
patterns across Europe. They showed that the summer does stand out as exceptionally
cold the coldest since the beginning of their records in 1750 and taking place in what
C. Oppenheimer 245
was already a cold decade. Summer temperatures across much of western and central
Europe were 1–2°C cooler than the average for the period 1810–1819 and up to 3°C
cooler than the mean during 1951–1970. Rainfall was also anomalously high across
most of Europe except the eastern Mediterranean during the summer of 1816. Weather
Figure 8 Length of growing season in (a) southern Maine, (b)
southern New Hampshire, and (c) eastern Massachusetts, between
1790 and 1840. Short growing seasons occurred in 1808, 1824, 1829,
1834 and 1836 but 1816 stands out as by far the briefest
Source: based on data in Baron (1992)
246 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
recorded in Ireland fits in closely with the summer cooling, winter warming expected
for the northern hemisphere response to major sulfate aerosol veils:
In 1816 the spring was unusually late; the summer and autumn excessively wet, cold, and cloudy: the quantity
of rain which fell in this year measured in the gauge nearly 31 inches, a circumstance perhaps unprecedented
in this country; there were 142 wet days, and these principally in the summer and autumnal months. The mean
temperature of the spring, summer, and autumn, was 3 degrees below that of the preceding year . . . the winter
of 1816 was remarkably mild. The year 1817 was almost as remarkable as 1816 for being wet and cold. (Harty,
1820)
More recent dendrochronological studies carried out by Briffa
et al. (1998) confirmed
the distribution of these summer coolings both sides of the Atlantic (Figure 9). In their
Figure 9 Reconstructed surface temperature anomalies computed
from latewood density in tree rings for summer 1816
Source: based on data in Briffa
et al. (1998)
C. Oppenheimer 247
reconstruction of northern hemisphere summer temperatures, 1816 is one of the very
coldest of the past six centuries, second only to 1601 (the year after the eruption of
Huaynaputina in Peru). The northern hemisphere summers of 1817 and 1818 are also
anomalously cold (5th and 22nd coldest in the 600-year record). The cold conditions
appear not to have reached western North America in 1816 (Lough, 1992; Briffa
et al.,
1998). Briffa et al. (1998) estimated mean northern hemisphere (land and marine)
surface temperature anomalies in the summers of 1816, 1817 and 1818 of –0.51, –0.44
and –0.29 K, respectively. The climate records are in reasonable agreement with the
results of climate modelling conducted by Vupputuri (1992) who estimated a global
peak surface cooling of 1 K in 1816 (Figure 10).
As well as a cooler summer, parts of Europe, at least, seem to have experienced
stormier winters. Dawson
et al. (1997) used an extended meteorological record collected
in Edinburgh, and dating back to 1770, to test the correlation between gale frequency
and large magnitude volcanic eruptions. They defined a ‘gale day’ as one in which
wind speeds measured at 10 m height reaches or exceeds 34 knots for at least a ten
minute period. Their record is the longest of its kind for Europe and indicated increased
winter storminess following the eruptions of Krakatau and El Chichón as well as
Tambora (the record they used ran to 1990 and so was not able to shed light on
Pinatubo’s possible impacts on Scotland).
Ice core chemistry provides further information on the atmospheric impacts of the
eruption. Laj
et al. (1993) examined the Greenland ice core and observed that the ratio
of winter-to-summer deposition of NO3
increased following the eruptions of both
Tambora and Katmai (1912). They attributed this to condensation and removal of
stratospheric HNO3from the arctic stratosphere during the winter, and slower
formation of HNO3during summer as a result of removal of OH through oxidation of
SO2. Looking at Antarctic ice core chemical stratigraphy, Delmas
et al. (1992) found no
evidence for changes in atmospheric chlorine associated with Tambora, suggesting that
the massive amount of chlorine thought to have been released by the eruption (100 Tg)
was rapidly and efficiently scavenged by the troposphere as the eruption clouds
ascended.
Figure 10 Modelled global stratospheric and surface temperature
changes following the Tambora eruption
Source: based on data in Vupputuri (1992)
248 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
IV Human tragedy
The devastating effects of an eruption of this magnitude are hard to imagine at this
remove in time, we lack firm evidence of the nature and numbers of casualties but do
have some important contemporary sources that illustrate the terrible circumstances
that befell not only Sumbawa but the neighbouring island of Lombok, and possibly Bali
and beyond. The consequences for the local population were not realized until ships
reached ports on Sumbawa. The
Benares dropped anchor at Bima on 19 April, followed
by the
Dispatch, which was on route from Ambon, reaching Bima on 22 April.
1 Local and regional impacts
The damage at Sanggir is recorded first by the crew of the
Dispatch. They had mistaken
Sanggir Bay for Bima and had, with difficulty, anchored and sent a boat ashore. A ship’s
officer met the Rajah of Sanggir and learnt that:
. . . the greater part of the town and a number of people had been destroyed by the eruption; that the whole of
his country was entirely desolate, and the crops destroyed. . . . a considerable distance from the shore being
completely filled up with pumice-stones, ashes, and logs of timber; the houses appeared beaten down and
covered with ashes. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 167)
Further destruction was witnessed in Sumbawa Besar by another ship’s crew putting
ashore there for water. They found boats strewn inland by tsunami and many corpses.
Sailing away, they were trapped by a pumice raft 0.6 m thick the entire night of 12 April.
While Lieutenant Philipps was on his mercy- and fact-finding mission to Sumbawa
and travelling from Bima to Dompu he must have observed an unimaginably desperate
scene:
On my trip towards the western part of the island, I passed through nearly the whole of Dompo and a consid-
erable part of Bima. The extreme misery to which the inhabitants have been reduced is shocking to behold.
There were still on the road side the remains of several corpses, and the marks of where many others had been
interred: the villages almost entirely deserted and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having
dispersed in search of food. (Raffles, 1817, 1830)
Poor hygiene, contaminated water supplies and a malnourished population resulted in
the spread of disease in the survivors. Increased diarrhoeal disease commonly occurs
after volcanic eruptions, often due to contamination of water by ashfall.
In Dompo, the sole subsistence of the inhabitants for some time past has been the heads of the different species
of palm, and the stalks of the papaya and plantain
Since the eruption, a violent diarrhoea has prevailed in Bima, Dompo, and Sang’ir, which has carried off a great
number of people. It is supposed by the natives to have been caused by drinking water which has been
impregnated with ashes; and horses have also died, in great numbers, from a similar complaint.
The Rajah of Sang’ir came to wait on me at Dompo, on the 3d instant. The suffering of the people there appears,
from his account, to be still greater than in Dompo. The famine has been so severe that even one of his own
daughters died from hunger. I presented him with three coyangs of rice in your name, for which he appeared
most truly thankful.
A messenger who returned yesterday from Sambawa, relates that the fall of ashes has been heavier at Sambawa
than on this side of the Gulf, and that an immense number of people have been starved: they are now parting
with their horses and buffaloes for a half or quarter rupee’s worth of rice or corn. The distress has, however, I
C. Oppenheimer 249
trust, been alleviated by this time, as the brig, with sixty-three coyangs of rice, from Java, arrived there the day
he was leaving it. (Raffles, 1817, 1830)
Sigurdsson and Carey (1992) estimated that the eruption released around 100 Tg of
chlorine (as HCl) and 70 Tg of fluorine (as HF). Fluorine is readily adsorbed on to ash
particles and is likely to have been quickly flushed into the soil available for uptake by
vegetation. It is possible that fluorine poisoning was widespread in livestock and
humans. Inhalation of fine ash is also likely to have caused widespread respiratory
disease in the areas affected by heavy ashfall. After the Pinatubo eruption, several
hundred evacuees died from diseases while in refugee camps. Deaths, primarily caused
by measles (31%), diarrhoea (29%) and respiratory infections (22%), reached 349 in the
first 12 weeks following the eruption (Surmieda
et al., 1992). Similar ailments must have
afflicted a large fraction of the population of Sumbawa following the Tambora eruption,
and probably with much higher mortality. Estimates of the number of casualties vary
considerably and there are no really reliable data available. Philipps tried to collate
some statistics:
Of the whole villages of Tomboro, Tempo, containing about forty inhabitants, is the only one remaining. In
Pekáté no vestige of a house is left: twenty-six of the people, who were at Sumbawa at the time, are the whole
of the population who have escaped. From the most particular inquiries I have been able to make, there were
certainly not fewer than twelve thousand individuals in Tomboro and Pekáté at the time of the eruption, of
whom only five or six survive. The trees and herbage of every description, along the whole of the north and
west sides of the peninsula, have been completely destroyed, with the exception of a high point of land near the
spot where the village of Tomboro stood; on it a few trees still remain. In the night of the eruption, two men and
two women, I am informed, escaped to this point, and were saved. I have sent in search of them, but have not
yet been able to get hold of them; no person has yet been along the eastern side of the hill. (Raffles, 1817, 1830)
Zollinger (1855) concluded that about 10 000 people were killed during the eruption,
probably by pyroclastic flows, a further 38 000 died from starvation on Sumbawa. He
estimated another 10 000 deaths from disease and hunger on Lombok. The most widely
quoted statistics today are derived from the work of Petroeschevsky (1949), who
estimated 48 000 victims on Sumbawa and 44 000 on Lombok, around 35% and 23% of
the total population of the islands, respectively. However, Tanguy et al. (1998) have
challenged Petroeschevsky’s figures, explaining that the figures for Lombok, in
particular, appeared ‘to be entirely unfounded’, being based on untraceable references.
They considered Raffles’ and Zollinger’s reports the most trustworthy but pointed out
that there may have been many additional victims on Bali and even eastern Java from
famine and disease. They tentatively suggested 11 000 deaths from ash falls and flows,
and 49 000 from famine and epidemic disease. Assuming that Philipps’ account is the
most contemporary and accurate, we may make a minor modification and push the
number directly killed by the eruption up to 12 000. The total figure of 71 000 makes the
Tambora eruption the deadliest known in history. In the database of volcanic disasters
compiled by Tanguy et al. (1998), which begins with Laki in 1783 and ends with
Montserrat 1997, Tambora accounts for nearly 30% of the total number of deaths.
If anything, the casualty figures quoted above are likely to be underestimated since it
is probable that there were many deaths on Bali and perhaps even east Java, though
there are conflicting indications in the latter case:
The roofs of the houses at Bangeewanzee fell in from the weight of the ashes . . . Most of the inhabitants of
Sumbawa, who are not buried, must be starved, and as the crops in Bali and the east end of Java have been
destroyed, they will also suffer considerably. [Letter dated August 1815: Asiatic Journal, April 1816, 1: 322–23)
250 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
In Banyuwangi and the adjacent part of the Island, on which the cloud of ashes spent its force, the injury was
more extensive. A large quantity of paddy was totally destroyed, and all the plantation more or less injured. One
hundred and twenty-six horses and eighty-six head of cattle also perished, chiefly from want of forage during
a month from the time of the eruption. (Raffles, 1830)
Damage was also considerable in Moressa (either near Ujung Pandang, Sulawesi, or
possibly Moresa island off the southeast coast of Kalimantan). The commander of the
Benares recorded . . .
On going on shore at Moressa I found the face of the country covered to the depth of an inch and a quarter.
Great fears were entertained for the crop of paddy that was on the ground, the young plants being completely,
beaten down and covered by it; the fish, in the ponds at Moressa were killed, and floating on the surface, and
many small birds lying dead on the ground. (Asiatic Journal, August 1816, 2: 166)
Further afield in Java, crops were spared because ‘the cultivators every where took the
precaution to shake off the ashes from the growing paddy as they fell’ (Raffles, 1830).
The heavy rainfall on 17 April also helped to wash away the ash. This . . .
. . . prevented much injury to crops, and removed an appearance of epidemic disease, which was beginning to
prevail. This was especially the case at Batavia, where, for two or three days preceding the rain, many persons
were attacked with fever. (Raffles, 1830)
2 Global impacts
Far beyond Indonesia, the pattern of climatic anomalies has been blamed for the
severity of a typhus epidemic, which raged through southeast Europe and the eastern
Mediterranean between 1816 and 1819. The first great epidemic of cholera broke out in
Bengal in 1816–17. Lamb (1995) concluded that taking account of these epidemics and
the famines of 1816–17, this period witnessed one of the greatest world disasters
associated with climate change. How do such allegations stand up to close scrutiny?
The killing frosts in New England all but destroyed the main crops in 1816. Further
south in North Carolina, towards the American grain-producing heartlands, the
outcome of the harvest was summed up on 1 September as follows:
The very cool and dry weather in spring and summer hurt our grain fields badly, and it was with sorrowful and
troubled hearts that we gathered our second crop of hay and our corn crop, which were so scanty that we
reaped only a third of what we usually get, and wondered how we could subsist until next year ’s harvest.
(Fries, 1947)
Many livestock died through lack of feed in New England during winter 1816–17.
Baron (1992) suggests that the region was probably particularly vulnerable to disaster
because, especially in northern New England, farming was already taking place on cli-
matologically marginal lands, and there was increased competition from the mid-
western USA and central Canada.
Despite the severe weather in Canada, its population avoided serious social distress
thanks to an embargo on grain exports between July and September 1816 and to its
favourable ratio of population to resources (Post, 1977). Meanwhile, in Europe, the
summer of 1816 was also miserable, reflected in Lord Byron’s poem,
Darkness
(part of
which is quoted as the frontispiece of this article). Byron wrote this whilst staying in
Geneva, brooding darkly on the bloody turn of European history during the
Napoleonic wars. The desperate times are also said to have inspired his companion in
C. Oppenheimer 251
Geneva, Mary Shelley, to write Frankenstein. The cool temperatures and heavy rains
resulted in failed harvests in parts of the western British Isles, and families in Wales
travelled long distances as refugees, begging for food. Famine was prevalent in the
north and southwest of Ireland following failures of wheat, oat and potato harvests.
Indeed, many parts of Europe were affected:
Melancholy accounts have been received from all parts of the Continent of the unusual wetness of the season;
property in consequence swept away by inundation and irretrievable injuries done to the vine yards and corn
crops. In several provinces of Holland, the rich grass lands are all under water, and scarcity and high prices are
naturally apprehended and dreaded. In France the interior of the country has suffered greatly from the floods
and heavy rains. (The Norfolk Chronicle, 20 July 1816)
Should the present wet weather continue, the corn will inevitably be laid, and the effects of such a calamity at
such a time cannot be otherwise than ruinous to the farmers and even to the people at large. (The Times, 20 July
1816)
Post (1977) characterized the period 1816–19 as the last great subsistence crisis to affect
the Western world 1816–17 witnessed the worst famine in over a century. He used
grain prices as a proxy for harvest outcomes through the second half of the 1810s,
demonstrating a doubling of costs between 1815 and 1817 (Figure 11). This hit people
hard, driving the price of bread the principal food in popular budgets beyond the
reach even of the majority employed at customary wage levels (Post, 1977). He
acknowledged the role of new economic and political forces and the influence of post-
conflict dislocation and readjustment following the Napoleonic Wars in making the
disaster possible but argued strongly that hemispheric climatic disturbances precipitat-
ed the famine and food scarcities of 1816–17 promoting the financial panic and
depression in the following two years. ‘The harvest failures of 1816 came at an
inopportune time, superimposing a subsistence crisis not only on a stagnating
economy but also on a Western society still unsettled as a residue of the war years’
(Post, 1977).
The crisis was severe in the German lands, especially in the countryside and
southwest, where food prices exceeded those in urban and northern areas. When Carl
von Clausewitz toured the Prussian Rhineland in the spring of 1817, he found a bleak
scene:
The author, who traveled on horseback through the Eifel region in spring 1817, where he passed the night in
villages and little towns, often had a heartrending view of this misery, because these areas belong to the poorest
classes in the land. He saw ruined figures, scarcely resembling men, prowling around the fields searching for
food among the unharvested and already half rotten potatoes that never grew to maturity. (von Clausewitz,
1922)
Popular reaction to the dire circumstances included demonstrations in grain markets
and in front of bakeries and, in some regions, riots, looting and arson (Post, 1977). In
May 1816, riots broke out in various parts of East Anglia, including Norfolk, Suffolk,
Huntingdon and Cambridge. Acts of protest included destruction of threshing
machines, and torching of barns and grain sheds. The insurrection culminated in
formation of marauding groups of rioters armed with heavy sticks studded with iron
spikes and carrying flags proclaiming ‘Bread or Blood’. The riot act was read,
threatening the death penalty, and the disturbances were quelled.
Typhus epidemics are associated with cold and damp, poor hygiene and louse infes-
tations; war and famine have been typical factors promoting explosive epidemics of
252 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
typhus. A doctor working in the Belfast Fever Hospital detailed the epidemiology of
typhus outbreaks in Ireland in a letter written in April 1818 as follows:
I consider the predisposing causes of the present Epidemic to have been the great and universal distress
occasioned among the poorer classes, by the scarcity which followed the bad harvest of 1816, together with the
depressed state of trade and manufactures of all kinds. The low condition of bodily health arising from the
deficiency and bad quality of the food; the want of cleanliness both in the persons and dwellings of the poor
. . . I consider the contagion to have been rapidly spread by the numbers wandering about in search of
subsistence, and also by the establishments for the distribution of soup and other provisions among the poor
where multitudes were crowded together, many of whom must have come from infected houses, or were
perhaps even laboring under the early stages of the disease. (Harty, 1820: 158–59)
Figure 11 Indices of wholesale grain prices in Europe and North
America from 1815 to 1820 based on national, regional or market
averages. The figures are standardized to an index of 100 for all areas
in 1815 and represent wheat prices except for Austria, Bavaria,
Wurttemberg, Saxony and Poland, for which rye prices are quoted.
They present a picture of deficient harvests and increased demand
Source: data from Post (1977)
C. Oppenheimer 253
Harty (1820) estimated that around 800 000 people were infected during the epidemic
in Ireland, and that 44,300 ‘perished from the joint ravages of Famine, Dysentry, and
Fever ’. The typhus epidemic visited almost every town and village in England, and was
reported in many cities in Scotland (Post, 1977). Europe in 1816 was already experienc-
ing social and economic distress at the end of 25 years of war, not least owing to the
sudden appearance of several million men on the labour market after their demobiliza-
tion from the military. These upheavals created vulnerability, and the combination of
colder weather, migration resulting from famine and a malnourished population would
have represented highly conducive conditions for an epidemic. It seems plausible that
Tambora’s eruption, and its global climatic reach, really did play a role in the outbreaks
of typhus, dysentery and other ailments in 1816–19. On the question of the link
suggested between climate change and the cholera outbreak in Bengal, the evidence in
favour is weak, however. According to Pant
et al. (1992), 1816 appears to have been a
normal monsoonal rainfall year without any reports of drought or flooding throughout
the country. Furthermore, the epidemic is generally thought to have arisen as a result of
troop movements in India displacing people out of the endemic source of the disease,
and the epidemic did not reach Europe until 1831–32 (Pollitzer, 1959).
V Tambora in context
Tambora’s 1815 eruption ranks as the largest
known
event in the past two millennia. In
terms of magnitude it falls in between the larger »40 kyr BP Campanian ignimbrite
eruption from the Campi Flegrei caldera in Italy (2.7 ´1014 kg), and the »3600 yr BP
‘Minoan’ eruption of Santorini (3.3 ´1013 kg). Comparable events to Tambora in terms
of magnitude include the AD 1030 eruption of Baitoushan on the China/North Korea
border, the »6300 yr BP Kikai eruption, Japan, and the »7600 yr BP eruption of Mount
Mazama, Oregon, better known as Crater Lake. Decker (1990) indicates that events of
Tambora’s magnitude or greater occur with a frequency of two to four per millennium.
However, consideration of the known eruptions of magnitude 5 ´1013 kg and up, that
occurred in the past 2000 years, suggests a frequency closer to one per 1000 years (Pyle,
1995). But not all large eruptions have been identified. In particular, the ice core record
indicates a massive sulfate layer in 1259, the strongest volcanic marker in the past 7000
years of the GISP2 (Greenland) record, and four times the magnitude of the Tambora
layer (Zielinski, 1995). The responsible volcano is not known (Stothers, 2000) but a
Tambora-sized eruption is certainly plausible (Oppenheimer, 2003). Putting this
information together, and taking into account the uncertainties in estimates of eruption
magnitudes, suggests a best estimate of the frequency of >5 ´1013 kg events of one to
two per 1000 years.
A compilation of dendrochronological and ice core data for the past 600 years is
plotted in Figure 12. The tree ring anomalies have been correlated against other clima-
tological records to reveal a number of cool northern hemisphere summers that are
probably the result of volcanic eruptions. As discussed in Section 3, the Tambora
eruption precedes three cold northern hemisphere summers. Surprisingly, the coldest
summer identified in this record falls in the year following the 1600 Huaynaputina
eruption in Peru. Despite its lower magnitude and higher latitude (in the southern
hemisphere) than the Tambora eruption, this event appears responsible for a
254 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
Figure 12 GISP2 ice core volcanic markers (lower curve) and northern hemisphere land and marine surface
temperature anomalies obtained from tree ring latewood density data (upper curve). The sulfate record was
obtained by an empirical orthogonal function analysis of the glaciochemical data series (Zielinski
et al., 1996).
The temperature anomalies are relative to the 1881–1960 mean for April–September as reported by Briffa
et al.,
(1998). GISP2 data provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado at Boulder.
Both datasets archived by the World Data Center-A for Paleoclimatology, National Geophysical Data Center,
Boulder, Colorado (Contribution Series #98-022 for the tree-ring anomalies). Note that some of the identifica-
tions of these anomalies with known eruptions are more speculative than others (see Zielinski, 2000, for a
discussion of dendrochronological, ice core and other records of volcanism)
pronounced northern hemisphere summer cooling of around 0.8 K. Both records
provide the basis for many of the comparative data shown in Table 2. The table partic-
ularly emphasizes the magnitude and scale of human impact of the Tambora eruption.
For comparisons of volcanic forcing of climate with other factors (e.g., greenhouse gas
increases, solar variability) see Hansen
et al. (1997) and Crowley (2000).
C. Oppenheimer 255
Table 2 Comparison of selected volcanic eruptions of the past two millennia
Eruption year and Column Magnitude Sulfur Northern Fatalitiese
volcano height (kg)byield (Tg hemisphere
(km)aS)csummer
temperature
anomaly (K)d
»181 Taupo 51 7.7 ´1013 ?6.5 ? Unlikely
»969 Baitoushan 25 5.8 ´1013 >2 ? ?
»1258 Unknown ? ? >100 ? ?
»1452 Kuwae ? >8 ´1013 ?40 –0.5 ?
1600 Huaynaputina 46 2.1 ´1013 23 –0.8 »1400
1815 Tambora 43 1.4 ´1014 28 –0.5 >71 000
1883 Krakatau 25 3.0 ´1013 15 –0.3 36 600
1902 Santa Maria 34 2.2 ´1013 11fNo anomaly 7000–13 000
1912 Katmai 32 2.5 ´1013 10 –0.4 2
1980 Mt St Helens 19 7.1 ´1011 0.5 No anomaly 57
1982 El Chichón 32 3.0 ´1012 3.5 In the noise >2000
1985 Nevado del Ruíz 27 4.5 ´1010 0.35 No anomaly 23 000
1991 Pinatubo 34 1.3–1.8 ´1013 10 –0.5 1202
Notes:
aPeak eruption column heights for plinian phases estimated by Carey and Sigurdsson
(1989) except for Pinatubo, Baitoushan and Huyanaputina for which heights were taken from
Holasek
et al. (1996), Horn and Schmincke (2000) and Adams
et al. (2001), respectively.
bTotal eruption magntitude for multiple phases of eruption and combining plinian and phoenix
cloud ashfall and associated pyroclastic flow deposits where applicable, data mainly from Carey
and Sigurdsson (1989) and Pyle (2000), and references given for column height, plus Monzier
et
al. (1994) for Kuwae.
cStratospheric sulfur yield estimated from Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer data (for eruptions
since 1980), and from ice core and astronomical observations (for earlier eruptions) from Zielinski
(1995) and De Silva and Zielinski (1998) (note that the value given here for Tambora is the one
quoted by Zielinski (1995), for consistency with the other amounts reported in the Table, but see
main text and Table 1).
dEstimated northern hemisphere summertime temperature anomaly derived from tree ring
chronologies reported by Briffa
et al. (1998) for eruptions before Mt St Helens (note that other
records do indicate a
»0.2 K northern hemisphere summer cooling in 1903).
eCombined fatality estimates for various causes of death from the compilation of Tanguy
et al.
(1998) except for Tambora (see text) and Huaynaputina for which the figures quoted by Simkin
and Siebert (1994) are used.
f1902 was a memorable year for volcanism with major eruptions at Mont Pelée (Martinique) and
Soufrière (St Vincent) as well as the Santa Maria event, i.e., the volcanic sulfate marker in the ice
core record may represent fallout from any combination of the aerosol veils of these different
eruptions
256 Consequences of Tambora volcano eruption 1815
VI Summary and implications
The eyewitness accounts provide a vivid picture of the appalling devastation during,
and following, the eruption, in Sumbawa and neighbouring islands. An estimated 71
000 lives were lost in Sumbawa and Lombok alone. The violent eruption of 50 km3
dense-rock equivalent of intermediate, volatile-charged magma pumped around 60 Tg
of sulfur into the stratosphere. This resulted in a peak stratospheric loading
approaching 200 Tg of sulfate aerosol, noted at the time across the globe in the guise of
various atmospheric optical phenomena. Evidence linking the eruption to the recorded
extreme weather events in Europe and North America is found in the observed pattern
of northern hemisphere summer cooling and winter warming and storminess.
Interestingly, some early commentators on the volcanic culpability in the cold decade of
the 1810s pointed to the warm northern winter of 1816, as well as the low temperatures
that prevailed before the eruption, as evidence
against
a volcanic cause of the climate
change. Now we see that the temporal and spatial pattern of surface temperatures in
1815–17 is consistent with recent observations after Pinatubo as well as modelling
efforts (Kirchner
et al., 1999). The cold climate prior to 1815 may even have been partly
induced by a Krakatau-sized stratospheric aerosol veil cast over the Earth by an
unknown equatorial eruption in 1809 (Figure 6; Dai
et al., 1991; Chenoweth, 2001). This
raises the issue of the potential of repeated high sulfur-yield eruptions being able to
knock the climate system for longer periods than the 1–2 year coolings observed after
individual eruptions such as Krakatau 1883 or Pinatubo 1991. In particular this has been
considered as an important forcing factor in decadal-scale climate variability during the
Little Ice Age (Crowley, 2000), especially during the seventeenth century when a
number of unidentified eruptions appear to have caused significant summer cooling
events seen in the dendrochronological record for the northern hemisphere (Figure 12).
The arguments linking extreme weather in parts of the northern hemisphere to poor
harvests in 1816, and consequent sharp rises in grain prices in Europe and America, are
strong. The economic, demographic and political upheavals following the Napoleonic
wars provided conditions that exacerbated the agricultural crisis, leading to famine,
epidemic disease, and further social disturbances in many parts of the Western world.
Post (1977) goes further to suggest that the series of social and economic reversals
experienced in these years initiated a political shift to the right, especially in France and
Germany: ‘The few weak liberal compromises that made a timid appearance in 1815–16
vanished in a climate of mistrust and fear in 1819–20’. He concludes that the political
reaction of European governments to the epidemics, commercial depression, unem-
ployment, hunger, rioting, widespread begging and vagrancy, and large-scale
emigration ‘can be seen as the last link in a connected sequence of events that began
with the meteorological effects of the volcanic dust clouds of 1815’.
Conventional wisdom dictates that such dire consequences to volcanic eruptions are
unlikely to result today because of the way in which the international community can
respond collectively to disasters. However, one only need consider the catalogue of
recent famines to have afflicted many parts of Africa, and the slow and often ineffective
international response to them, to realize that the modern world is far from immune to
the potentially catastrophic impacts of major volcanic eruptions such as Tambora’s 1815
outburst. Regional air traffic could be disrupted for days to weeks during and in the
aftermath of a similar eruption and, in particular, reaching the devastated area around
the volcano would be hampered by ash on the ground as well as in the air. The regional
scale economic impacts arising from such a disaster could well have a global reach.
What kind of signals might presage a future Tambora-sized event? It is worth noting
that the climactic 1815 eruption was preceded by 3 years of precursory activity, which
included minor ash eruptions. Unfortunately, we have almost no information on
whether there was a progression in these signals, for example, in respect of frequency
and magnitude of explosive activity, felt earthquakes, or style or composition of gas
emissions. Three years is quite an extended period, significantly longer, for example,
than the several weeks of reported premonitory activity at Pinatubo in 1991. One of the
outstanding challenges to volcanology is to develop reliable methods for predicting the
nature and timing of eruptions, and the parallel needs for effective communication of
risk management strategies to people concerned. How a population would cope with
several years of uncertainty in the lead up to a potentially devastating event of
Tambora’s magnitude is very difficult to gauge. Assessing the probabilities of different
sizes of possible eruptions at a restless volcano is equally challenging. What we can say,
is that there is perhaps as high as a 10% chance of a Tambora-sized eruption occurring
somewhere in the next 50 years, and that it is more likely to be in Indonesia than any
other country.
Acknowledgements
I am grateful to Owen Tucker who produced most of the graphics shown here, David
Pyle for discussions and the anonymous referees for their comments on the original
manuscript. This paper is dedicated to the memory of Dick Chorley (1927–2002), a
polymathic scholar, and a most generous and cheerful colleague.
C. Oppenheimer 257
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... The year of Kosciuszko's death, 1817, was conducive to immune imbalance due to severe D3 avitaminosis, as it was the famous second consecutive European "year without summer", after the eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia [17]. ...
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