A sobering reminder of the power of our planet

Happy New Year, one and all. Let’s hope it truly is so this time, eh? As if to remind me not to expect too much change on the first day of a new year, when I woke up late this morning after an evening’s revelling I opened my window to the sight of rainfall – yet again. Storm Frank may well be taking its time to recede.

The recent rain storms, floods, and obligatory mentions in the media of (insert superlative here) (insert appropriate weather record here) Since Records Began are certainly concerning reminders of the power of our surrounding environment and climate, and how, despite all the various technological and scientific advances of recent years, we are all vulnerable to environmental and climatic changes. Such changes and disruptions can have far-reaching consequences: who knows what effects the floods will ultimately have on our lives and destinies in the years to come?

Crater rim of Mount Tambora, Sumbawa, Indonesia
Crater rim of Mount Tambora, Sumbawa, Indonesia

This year marks the bicentenary of 1816 (and I know I’m provoking an inevitable ‘Well, duh!’ response here) – a year known to historians and scholars all over the world as The Year Without A Summer. It was caused by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the previous year. While Napoleon Bonaparte was making his big comeback in Europe during the Hundred Days, on 10 April 1815 Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa blew its top, killing nearly 12,000 people there outright. Famine and disease caused by the eruption’s wrecking of crops accounted for a further 38,000 lives, making this eruption easily the worst in modern history. Yet Tambora’s impact on Sumbawa island is only the start of the story. Ash and gases emitted into the atmosphere by the eruption affected the quality of sunlight around the world, creating quite colourful sunsets in some places. The emissions also caused temperatures across the globe to drop by approximately 1 degree Celsius. That may not look like much of a fall, but it was enough to precipitate a higher than average amount of rainfall and severe flooding around Asia and Europe. Aside from the resultant harvest failures leading to food shortages and thereby soaring food prices, this general cooling led to famine and disease in many places, including Ireland (of which more later). Not only that, but the almost incessant rainfall in much of central Europe led one group of British writers journeying in Switzerland in the summer of 1816 to spend one evening indoors by Lake Geneva, using the accompanying storm as a useful backdrop to writing and comparing ghost stories. Out of this evening emerged Mary Shelley’s first draft of her most famous novel Frankenstein.

It was not the first time that a volcano had left a massive imprint on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people not in its immediate vicinity. A generation before the Tambora eruption, June 1783 saw the beginning of an eight-month eruption of the Icelandic volcano of Laki, sending several millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide and ash into the atmosphere. As with Tambora, these gases and ash caused temperatures generally to drop, leading to crop damage and harvest failures across North America and Europe over the next four years. The ensuing hardships were an important factor behind increasing social tensions around western Europe, with the tensions in France culminating in revolution in 1789. Farther back, even before the Classical period, a catastrophic volcanic eruption led to the downfall of an entire civilization. At some point during the 17th century BC, the volcano atop the Aegean island of Thera blew the island apart, not only propelling ash and gases into the air, but also causing massive tsunami waves that destroyed Minoan towns and settlements on Crete and other surrounding islands and even the coasts of north Africa and Anatolia. The destruction of urban areas and palaces, combined with the ashfall destroying agriculture, led to famine, disease, anarchy and social chaos, with thousands opting to leave the empire and move to areas untouched by the disaster. This event, of a natural disaster leading to the fall of the Minoan civilization, is thought to have inspired the legend of Atlantis.

But back to the Year Without a Summer. The fallout from the Tambora eruption led to famine and disease all over the world: a cholera pandemic over the next decade or so claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in India, Egypt, Russia, and America. The epidemic even touched parts of western Europe, with the French prime minister Casimir Pierre Perier becoming perhaps the highest-profile victim in May 1832. Finally, in Ireland it is thought that around 100,000 died in 1816-19 from starvation and typhus. Understandably, this disaster is less well remembered than the Great Hunger of the 1840s, and the two events were not the only occasions in which Ireland suffered famine. Nonetheless, the combination of such calamities so soon after the 1801 Union with Britain, and a growing feeling that direct rule from London meant little, if any, improvement in the living conditions of the vast majority of the Irish population, were important factors in fuelling Irish nationalism. The historian Robert Kee in his book The Green Flag put it thus:

If the Union were to be a political success, it had to bring about some definite change in Irish life. Its justification lay in ushering in a new era. The one thing it could not afford to be in everyday terms was meaningless… The ground swell of social discontent remained as before, a vast unwieldy incoherent force, available to any political skill that might be bold enough to try to harness it.

There is an uncanny similarity about the way in which all eye-witnesses describe the conditions of the majority of the population of Ireland over a vast span of newly two centuries. In the middle of these two centuries stands the Union of 1801, an almost irrelevant landmark.

It’s yet another example of how our sometimes violent earth and frequently fickle weather loom over us all, with the power to change all our lives in ways rarely predictable at the time of the original events.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.