Winter is coming. Should I wear a coat, or a Hazmat suit?
Volcanoes, butterflies, Frankenstein, nuclear warfare and winters.
In April 1815, the skies of Sumbawa, an island in Indonesia, were consumed by fire and ash. Mount Tambora had erupted. This wasn’t the typical everyday tectonic event. As a matter of fact, it was the strongest volcanic eruption ever recorded in human history. “So what?” you may ask. The fact that this volcano killed tens of thousands of people may not in itself seem particularly noteworthy - volcanoes tend to do that, after all. So why talk about it?
Caldera of Mount Tambora, NASA
This was an eruption whose impact wasn’t merely the destruction of tracts of land around itself due to ejection of hot materials and ash, but also the land and lives it devastated on the other side of the planet, lives of people who had never seen it, or even known its name. This is not because the eruption was so strong as to cause a cinematic apocalypse with hellfire raining down from the heavens all across the globe. Its influence was way more subtle and not at all volcanic at first sight (unless you happened to be on Sumbawa at the moment). In fact, most of its disastrous effects were caused by the cold it caused, not the heat, however contrary to common sense that may seem. That is because it prompted what is called a volcanic winter.
As often quoted to explain chaos theory to laymen, “a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and causes a tornado in Texas” (or some very similar statement about butterflies flapping their wings). This is very apt to the topic at hand, as very similar statements could be made about the 1815 Tambora eruption - such as “A volcano erupts in Indonesia and Brits riot due to crop failure,” which is a wholly factual statement, unlike the aphorism about butterflies.
What, then, is a volcanic winter? How does a volcano colden things? On first consideration , that may seem outright nonsensical. It’s not that the volcano itself, by erupting, somehow inverts the laws of logic and physics and freezes things. Rather, if an eruption is strong enough, the materials which it releases into the atmosphere - volcanic ash and aerosols that contain sulfur - block out radiation coming from the sun. We call it a volcanic winter only if there is enough material let out to actually decrease the global temperature. Obviously, this doesn’t happen with every volcanic eruption, as it must produce enough mass to actually have such an impact.
The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, John Martin, © Tate
Many other volcanic winters aren’t so dramatic, or even noticeable. For example, the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, located in the Philippines, only caused a global decrease in temperature by 0.5 degrees celsius, which was barely noticeable. However, this certainly wasn’t the case following Mt. Tambora’s eruption.
It led to the following year, 1816, being called the “year without a summer,” which is a self-explanatory epithet. There were many crop failures across the Northern Hemisphere, as well as food shortages and famine, both caused by the decreased temperatures. This caused the aforementioned riots. To illustrate the dire conditions more graphically - in Britain, it snowed in the middle of July. This misplaced winter had an impact on popular culture in yet another way that may prove rather surprising. It (at least partly) instigated the creation of the novel Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, the woman who wrote it, was travelling across Europe with a group of friends, and, inspired by the gloomy conditions, they each tried to tell a “ghost story,” which resulted in the creation of the iconic pop-cultural mad scientist and his neglected, monstrous creation.
“Mary Shelley“ Richard Rothwell, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Volcanic winters, however, aren’t the only “winters” caused by excess amounts of material released in the atmosphere - similar events occur, or are hypothesized to. For example, an “impact winter” would be a decrease in the global temperature caused by earth being hit by a cosmic body, such as an asteroid, releasing debris that would limit the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth.
What may be more relevant today and perhaps more frightening than comets and asteroids is a nuclear winter - climate change similar to that discussed up to this point caused by the impact of nuclear weapons. In consequence of enough nuclear explosions, global temperatures could colden, according to a study conducted by physicists in 1983, among them such famous personages as Carl Sagan. This would result from the immense amounts of fire brought about by nuclear warheads - known as firestorms - releasing large amounts of soot and dust into the air. The materials from burning cities, such as petrol and plastic would also contribute to the atmospheric effect. Since this would have much more drastic repercussions than the eruption of Tambora, some of the possible predicted effects include sub-freezing temperatures all around the world, lasting for weeks on end. This, combined with radiation from the fallout, could potentially threaten a major portion of life on Earth. Well, at least we now know of a possible solution to global warming.
Fearmongering is not the intent of this article - It’s also quite possible that a nuclear winter wouldn’t happen, because the study is old and more up-to-date analyses seem to reach different conclusions, as such predictions may be inaccurate using current, less outdated models of prediction. Consequently, there remains controversy over whether such a thing even is possible. Regardless of its accuracy, it still gives the world even more incentive to not get involved in nuclear warfare, which remains a threat in the current political climate.
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Brittanica.com, “Mount Tambora.” https://www.britannica.com/place/Mount-Tambora
Brittanica.com, “Nuclear Winter.” https://www.britannica.com/science/nuclear-winter
COOPER, Helen. BARNES, Julian E.. SCHMITT, Eric. “Russian Military Leaders Discussed Use of Nuclear Weapons, U.S. Officials Say.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/02/us/politics/russia-ukraine-nuclear-weapons.html
EVANS, Robert. “Blast from the Past - The eruption of Mount Tambora killed thousands, plunged much of the world into a frightful chill and offers lessons for today.” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/blast-from-the-past-65102374/
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UCAR, “Mount Tambora and the Year without a Summer.” https://scied.ucar.edu/learning-zone/how-climate-works/mount-tambora-and-year-without-summer
“Caldera of Mount Tambora.” NASA, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/39412/mount-tambora-volcano-sumbawa-island-indonesia
“Mary Shelley“ Richard Rothwell, circa 1831-1840, © National Portrait Gallery, London, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp04087/mary-wollstonecraft-shelley
“The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum.” John Martin, 1822, © Tate, Licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-destruction-of-pompeii-and-herculaneum-n00793