Year Without Summer

History is the story of the facts of men, and women. Generally the focus is on what we do to each other. On a personal level we speak of snooping, fighting, or murder, perhaps a betrayal or two.

Scale that up to a nation and it becomes espionage, war, and genocide.

Sometimes, what we collectively do depends not on us but on outside forces—economists call them externalities.

Examples that predate history, because they not only predate written records, but they date from the very beginning of life on earth, are the current findings that our chemical Lego, building blocks such as aminoacids, simple sugars, or DNA percursors exist in space—there’s alcohol out there too, both the ethyl variety and a spot of meths.

How did these simple materials get here? Comets, of course. When in doubt, nothing like a good comet to sort things out. About four billion years ago, the planet was apparently under a barrage of meteorites, a kind of cosmic Fourth of July.

So here’s a positive (but not for chickens) externality that ended up with humans dominating the planet—well, we like to think so. Fact is the insects may be the kings of the world, or arguably, and for us a far more sinister notion, parasites.

I don’t think we can deal with the enemy within, and we’re stuffed with parasites, from our brain to our sole. If we have a soul, there will be a soul parasite—sounds like a bad Motown song.

But within recorded European history, one of the more interesting externalities, and very much a negative one (but read on), occurred in the mid-thirteenth century.

First, here’s a little historical context. In June 1815, Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo, and by then, a volcano in Java was well on its way to contributing to planetary history with its own version of mayhem.

Vulcanologists use something called the volcanic explosivity index (VEI) to classify the scale of an eruption, and to give you a sense of proportion, the blast in Iceland  three years ago was a 4, and Yellowstone, over ten thousand years ago, scored an 8.

My closest encounter with a volcano was about ten years ago, on the island of Monserrat. The eruption had completely destroyed the airport, and levelled the city of Plymouth. Pathetic remnants of a playboy haven remained, including George Martin’s AIR studios.

When I arrived on the island, locals lined the port area, their faces, closed, sullen, desperate. Their lives had simply been stolen away. Monster Rat was a 3.

Like many of these scales, the VEI is logarithmic, so going up one number means the problem goes up by one order of magnitude. If you owe a hundred bucks you’re a 2, if you owe a thousand you’re a 3.

The Java volcano, called Tambora, was a 7, and hurled over one hundred cubic kilometers of ash into the air, to a height of over forty clicks. If you prefer cubic feet, a cubic meter is about thirty-five of those, and a cubic kilometer is one billion cubic meters, so how does three and a half trillion cubic feet of ash sound? It’s the equivalent of twenty billion elephants—now that’s a lot of jumbos.

The height of the sky is impossible to define, but thirty-one clicks contain ninety-nine percent of the atmosphere, so the ash cloud rose well past that, and then spread out all over the earth.

The eruption didn’t affect the climate immediately, but the following year of 1816 became known as the year without summer. In the U.S. east coast, there is ample documentation of the effects. NOAA has analysed the causes, and denies it can be blamed on sinners, or on the experiments carried out by Ben Franklin. The consequences of Tambora are naively captured in this poem by Eileen Marguet.

It didn’t matter whether your farm was large or small
It didn’t matter if you had a farm at all
Cause everyone was affected when water didn’t run
The snow and frost continued without the warming sun
One day in June it got real hot and leaves began to show
But after that it snowed again and wind and cold did blow
The cows and horses had no grass, no grain to feed the chicks
No hay to put aside that time, just dry and shriveled sticks
The sheep were cold and hungry and many starved to death
Still waiting for the warming sun to save their labored breath
The kids were disappointed, no swimming, such a shame
It was in 1816 that summer never came

Apparently, the first large migration to the midwest from the US northeast took place the following year.

So what about the mid-thirteenth century, or 1257, to be exact?

Well, it’s been known for twenty-five years that something big happened, and that it was twice the size of Tambora. But where? A researcher called Lavigne recently found a parchment from Java in a library in the Netherlands—the text contained a description of a huge eruption on the Indonesian island of Lombok.

In Europe, the consequences were devasting, triggering crop failure on a grand scale, with resulting famine and death. Tens of thousands of deaths are documented in England alone over the period of 1258 and 1259.

What’s more interesting is how this eruption might have thrown the climate wheel off balance, and interfered with agriculture and food supply over the next decades, to the extent that it may be indirectly responsible for large-scale famine in 1315, and for the plague thirty years later.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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