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How a Volcano Changed History

I just finished reading an enlightening book: The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman. What made this book particularly interesting is that one author is a Ph.D. in American history and the other a Ph.D. in meteorology. They wove a compelling story of the chronology of a volcanic event, describing both its physical effects and its effects on the politics, the economy, the arts, and the social structure in North America and Europe.

In April 1815, the most explosive volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred in Tamora, Indonesia. This event was ten times larger than Krakatoa and a hundred times larger than Mount St. Helens. Weather patterns were disrupted worldwide.

In North America, the explosion led to excessive rain in some areas and severe drought in others. In the northeastern United States, it led to snow, some of it brightly colored (reds, blues, yellows), throughout the summer months. Crops were almost a total loss. In New England, grain harvest was five percent of normal. “In the United States, the extraordinary weather produced food shortages, religious revivals, and extensive migration of people from New England to the Midwest” (overleaf).

“In Europe it led to famine, food riots, the transformation of stable communities into bands of wandering beggars, and one of the worst typhus epidemics in history….It was also responsible for the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunset paintings” (overleaf).

In 1815, air masses moved faster than communication. Communication was so slow that little weather prediction and no recording were done. Weather records were kept primarily by gentlemen scientists. As a result, obtaining the facts in this book was an arduous task.

Also in 1815, no one connected the strange weather patterns to a volcanic eruption. Not until the early twentieth century did an America meteorologist, William Humphreys, publish a paper linking volcanic eruptions with abnormal weather patterns. As is often the case, many scientists were skeptical of his findings. Without large volcanic eruptions, climate scientists used industrial pollution and, in the 1950s, nuclear bomb testing to model the possible effects of volcanic eruptions. The models were largely confirmed in 1980 with the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The effects of natural events are not often tracked as extensively as The Year Without Summer has done. Since no one at the time saw the connections, the authors had to spend an extraordinary amount of time searching diaries and journals in North America and Europe. This book is an interesting read.

One thought on “How a Volcano Changed History

  1. Sounds very interesting, and makes me wonder why I never heard about that devastating time period in history.

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