Geek Trivia: Fires of the imagination

What famous horror novel was an indirect result of the devastating Mt. Tambora volcanic eruption of 1815, which significantly impacted global climate conditions for more than a year?

Editor's note: By editor's request, this Classic Geek was re-animated specifically to haunt the Halloween holiday, despite the fact that it passed on from this editorial coil on Dec. 9, 2003. Of course, the mad scientists responsible for this atrocity couldn't resist tinkering with their creation, so it came back a little... different. Beware!

On April 10, 1815, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred on the small Indonesian island of Sumbawa. The Mount Tambora volcano, which had begun to awaken from its long slumber only days before, blasted a column of volcanic material -- composed of roughly 50 cubic kilometers of lava and perhaps three times that volume worth of ash -- more than 40 kilometers into the sky.

When it was all said and done, what was once a 14,000-foot (4,300-meter) peak stood at a mere 9,300 feet (2,851 meters), with the rest of its mass vaulted into the sky to poison the air and block out the sun. Immediate casualties on Sumbawa and the neighboring islands numbered in the tens of thousands, but the effect on the global climate was almost as staggering.

The hundreds of millions of tons of ash and sulfur dioxide hanging in the atmosphere after the eruption obscured light and heat from the sun, significantly lowering temperatures all over the planet. In some locations, this produced such drastic meteorological effects as snow and severe frost during normal summer months.

In many countries, 1816 became known as "The Year Without A Summer" or, less poetically, "Eighteen Hundred and Froze-to-Death." The decade of 1810 to 1819 was the coldest in recorded history, due in no small part to Tambora's influence.

These meteorological anomalies ruined fields of crops and resulted in both famine and economic turmoil for large portions of Europe and the United States. Food riots erupted in Britain, France, and Switzerland, and thousands of Americans migrated west from New York and New England after June frosts wiped out their entire harvests.

Beyond the straightforward climactic consequences -- which saw global average temperatures drop more than one full degree Fahrenheit -- bizarre meteorological phenomena also followed the Tambora explosion. Hungary saw brown snowfalls, while red snow blanketed Italy. In the northeastern United States, so-called dry fog (known more technically as a stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil) blanketed cities in a persistent haze that refused to dispel even under heavy rains.

To suggest that the situation was both literally and metaphorically gloomy would be a drastic understatement, but this very gloom indirectly produced one of the most famous horror novels ever written.


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By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...