Volcanoes Past and Present

Given the heightened period of volcanic activity from Hawaii’s Kilauea, which began on May 3rd of this year, perhaps it is appropriate to consider two volcanic eruptions that were far more powerful and had global environmental consequences. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, in Indonesia, is documented in Simon Winchester’s book Krakatoa: the day the world exploded: August 27th, 1883. The Tambora eruption of 1815, also in Indonesia, is the subject of Tambora: the eruption that changed the world by Gillen Wood.

Winchester’s book is well written and covers the geology of the eruption but the emphasis is on the socio-historical. Krakatoa was, by all witness accounts, a spectacular experience. The four final explosions in the lengthy series could clearly be heard as far as 3,000 mi away. Sailors 40 miles away from the island suffered ruptured eardrums. The entire island of Krakatoa, 5.6 mi long by 3.1 miles wide, was destroyed by the cataclysmic series of explosions. Needless to say, the effects of volcanic activity of this magnitude were long lasting and felt worldwide.

Winchester’s research shows the evidence for global climate change that altered crop harvests and changed ocean currents for several years. As is the case with much of his writing, Krakatoa reads like an adventure novel, not a dry scientific tome.

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World is an excellent treatise on one of the earliest documented natural disasters to have global consequences. Wood doesn’t dwell on geology (though he gives it adequate treatment) but zeros in on the consequences of the eruption. When Tambora erupted in 1815 (also in Indonesia) a plume of aerosol sulphur was ejected high enough to enter global circulation, causing some of the most chaotic and devastating environmental changes ever documented in writing. In New England 1816 was known as “the year without a summer,” a direct result of volcanic ejecta entering the stratosphere.

Wood is a professor of English at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and as such his writing leans toward the poetic rather than scientific prose. He expounds at length on the cultural effects of Tambora, such as the role severely altered weather patterns played in art and literature, particularly its influence on Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein.

Although the damage caused by Kilauea has certainly been significant it’s unlikely the current eruption will have consequences as far reaching as that of Tambora or Krakatoa. This would be a good thing under the best of circumstances but given the current state of upheaval and uncertainty in the world, the last thing we need is a cataclysmic eruption.

- Nate George

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