On a spring day almost two hundred years ago, natives on a small island of Indonesia felt the earth tremble beneath their feet. Six days later, the shock waves returned. Finally, on April 12, 1815, Mount Tambora, a 13,000-foot volcano, detonated in an explosion acknowledged as the world’s largest known volcanic eruption. Several hundred feet was blown completely off the top of the mountain. Up to 100 cubic miles of dust, gas and ashes were thrown skyward.
For the next three years, western Europe and eastern North America, including Newfoundland, endured the consequences.
When a volcano erupts, most of the ashes and dust are sent into the mid levels of the atmosphere. These tiny particles are spread by winds as a thin black cloud throughout the globe. Carbon dioxide is also released during these eruptions and reaches the stratosphere, where it combines with other molecules to form a second shield against the warming effects of the sun. The consequence for the earth’s surface is a reduction in sunlight and colder temperatures - the volcanic equivalent of nuclear winter.
The impact of a volcanic eruption has already been studied. When El Chichon erupted in Mexico in 1982, satellite imagery observed dust and ash spreading out into the atmosphere. Even carbon dioxide concentrations were traced.
The three winters subsequent to Tambora were three of the coldest on record. In New England, the summer of 1816 was known as the Year without a Summer. Weather records and diaries by farmers and others detailed record frosts and even snowfall during spring and summer.
Similar conditions were reported in Europe. Crop damage was extensive and many businesses faltered or failed.
Newfoundland’s experience is noted in Prowse’s History of Newfoundland. During the first winter (1815-16), many residents of St. John’s and outport communities were in a state of starvation because of business and crop failures. Repeat problems in the second winter were compounded by a major fire in the capital city. The most severe conditions occurred in 1817-18. Prowse called it the Winter of the Rals. Famine and severe frost reached catastrophic proportions.
A grand jury document described how several hundred men without money, food, shelter or adequate clothing wandered in desperation. "Gangs of half-famished lawless men everywhere threatened the destruction of life and property." Three hundred homes in St. John’s alone burned to the ground. Two thousand were left homeless.
Meanwhile, in England, Lord Byron wrote his famous poem Darkness. In part, he wrote "The bright sun was extinguished…Morn came and went and came and brought no day… men forgot their passions in the dread of their desolation…all hearts were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light. Palaces..and huts..were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed, and men were gather’d round their blazing homes to look once more into each other’s face; … and all was black."
Byron may as well have been writing about Newfoundland.
Copyright, Feb. 2, 1998.