Amazing Places

Mount Tambora's 1815 Eruption Was the Biggest in History

The list of the biggest volcanoes in popular consciousness isn't very long — Mount Vesuvius, Mount St. Helens, Krakatoa ... and that's about it. Which is why it's so strange that the biggest volcano ever isn't on that list. Especially since it's responsible for so much of modern culture.

The Explosion That Rocked the World

On April 5, 1815, a cruiser of the British East India Company in Indonesia's Makassar Strait reported nearby cannon fire to the south. They went to investigate for signs of pirates but turned up nothing. 500 miles east, a British citizen on the island of Ternate heard the guns as well and sent another cruiser in search of the perpetrators. Nothing. You might have guessed by now that the explosions heard across the Indian Ocean weren't cannons at all — but they also weren't the main event. They were only the prelude to the biggest volcanic explosion in recorded history. On April 10, Mount Tambora emptied between 50 and 150 cubic kilometers of magma onto the planet and kicked off a miniature ice age.

When Tambora exploded, it exploded in a big way. The sound reverberated through Sumatra (1,200 miles away) and ash from the eruption has been discovered as far as 808 miles to the northwest. Darkness hung over the region for two days, covering an area nearly the size of the continental United States. More than 12,000 residents of the island and its neighbors were killed nearly instantly, and the death toll would only rise as time went by — modern estimates attribute more than 60,000 deaths in Indonesia to the explosion's immediate aftermath as the lava flowed over villages and farmland. But even that was just the beginning.

The sudden influx of ash into the atmosphere caused a drastic drop in temperature, causing widespread famine all over the world and pushing the death toll to more than 100,000. Europe was hit particularly hard: 1816 was dubbed "The Year Without a Summer" and brought a massive wave of emigration. In fact, in 1817, the number of European immigrants to America was more than double that of any previous year. But today, the effects of the explosion are largely forgotten by non-volcanologists, with one major exception: They still echo in the pages of everyone's favorite monster story.

Mount Tambora's caldera, or volcanic crater, is nearly 4 miles (6 kilometers) in diameter and 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) deep.

A Monster Born of Ash and Lightning

In Geneva, 1816, a group of wealthy English tourists was trying to enjoy a sunny summer vacation in the Swiss Alps. Trying, but failing. One of them described the season like this: "Morn came and went — and came, and brought no day." This was the notoriously dramatic Lord Byron. His traveling companions were poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his fiancée, author Mary Wollstonecraft. As the gloomy days dragged on, the unfortunate vacationers entertained themselves with ghost stories around the campfire. Byron's was the story of Dracula, now overshadowed by Bram Stoker's more famous take, and Mary Wollstonecraft (better known today as Mary Shelley) eventually put her story to paper as "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus." The suffering of the age is apparent in the novel, which twists the nature of humanity into one of the great enduring horror stories of all time.

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Hear the whole story in "Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World" by Gillen D'Arcy Wood. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 23, 2017

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