MOS: The Year Without A Summer, Parts 1 & 2.

When I hear people say things like “nature couldn’t possibly make anything that’s bad for you,” I’m never sure where to start explaining how stunningly and embarrassingly wrong that is.

Let’s start with the all natural deadliest volcano in recorded history.

Today’s Moment of Science… The year without a summer.

The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is kinda like the Richter scale but for exploding mountains. It’s likewise a logarithmic scale, meaning that each level up is exponentially fuckier. But rather than a pure measurement of how hard the ground is quaking, VEI is a composite measurement including height and volume of the ejected matter. It also takes into account qualitative descriptions, like “gentle,” “paroxysmic,” or “super-colossal demon hill,” which is also my band name.

The scale goes from 0-8 with zero representing those gentle, non-explosive eruptions, and eight being “fuck up all life on Earth as we know it” bad.

Mount St. Helen’s was a small VEI-5 eruption. Krakatoa was a fucker of a VEI-6.

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora is the only confirmed VEI-7 that’s occurred in recorded history.

Located in Indonesia, its previous eruption was about a thousand years prior, give or take a century. Magma flowed into a sealed chamber causing a gradual buildup of expressed gas. This pressurized it to about 5,000 times higher than typical air pressure, the magma soaring to over 800 degrees Celsius.

Mount Tambora awoke in 1812, and rumbled an ominous warning for a few years before its great shart. It started on April 5th, 1815, with a “moderate” eruption, carrying volcanic ash and some unsettling noises to other Indonesian islands over 800 miles away. Five days later, it goddamn blew.

About a hundred cubic kilometers of disaster was blasted to the heavens. Pyroclastic flows destroyed the village of Tambora, taking the entire population of the Tambora people along with their culture and their language from this Earth. The eruption column went well over 40 kilometers into the stratosphere. Pumice and ash fell like rain. The mountain itself yielded to the blast, reduced from 14,000ft to 9,000ft. Several islands were hit by a twelve foot tsunami.

And that’s not even what caused most of the fatalities.

Estimates vary, but approximately 11,000 people were killed as a direct result of the explosion. With disease and famines that followed, some experts place the total as high as 117,000 deaths in Indonesia.

Then there was 1816.

Several large volcanoes had erupted between 1808 and 1815. Each one had deposited dust, ash, and sulfur into the atmosphere, with small drops in temperature being observed after the eruptions in 1812-1814. With gloomy skies primed for disaster, global temperatures dropped a full degree Farenheit following Tambora.

This also occurred during an unusually long period of low sunspot activity. Which just feels like the solar system was getting in on the “fuck this planet in particular” business.

“But Mrs. Auntie SciBabe,” I hear some of you think, “how can such a small temperature change cause such a ruckus?”

It’s a long story. You should come back to read it tomorrow.

This has been your Moment of Science, dancing madly on the lip of the volcano.


While I was reading up on this disaster, I kept thinking “someone must have started a religion.” Absolutely everything went wrong for a few years with the climate, virtually all of the “oh fuck off” diseases were still causing shenanigans, and there was nothing to eat. Even I would have been desperate enough for prayer at that point.

Took me by surprise which religion it was though.

Today’s Moment of Science… The Year Without a Summer, part 2.

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora was the anvil that broke the stratosphere’s back. The temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was already cooling after successive years of major volcanic eruptions. This coupled with multiple cycles of unusually low sunspot activity all funneled into a significant drop in temperatures in 1816.

In the year of our Lord 2021, some of the finest science-averse political minds will laugh when they hear it was just one degree Farenheit colder. Don’t fall for the lamestream media, man, since when has one degree been the difference between rain and snow?


Relatively little documentation of the eruption made its way around the world before the summer of 1816. Given the lack of steam powered internet, information only moved as fast as you could ship it across an ocean. It’s unclear how well scientists at the time understood the concept of volcanic winter. But even if the information had spread and they knew it was a potential problem, it’s further unclear how well they could have prepared to feed everyone with the best of nineteenth century agricultural technology without, uh, the sun.

Different parts of the world experienced different levels of abject fuckery. There was frost in Virginia in August. Snow fell in July in Massachusetts, and reportedly people still ordered their coffee iced from Dunkins. But more seriously, with less sunlight getting past the upper atmosphere’s dusting of ash and sulfur, crops failed to thrive. Famine and disease followed at alarming rates through the Northern Hemisphere for the next several years. Extreme weather exacerbated a cholera outbreak, spreading it up the Ganges from Bengal to Moscow. Typhus epidemics tore through Europe.

Society got to keep some lovely parting gifts from the worst summer ever. There was evidence to suggest that Baron Karl von Drais invented an early model of the bicycle because he wanted a means of transportation that didn’t get super cranky when you ran out of oats. Eighteen year old Mary Shelley was stuck indoors on holiday in Switzerland that summer, reading spooky stories with writer friends. They challenged each other to write something better than what they were stuck reading. Shelley’s story Frankenstein changed literature forever.

Finally, thousands of farmers migrated to the midwest after their crops failed, seeking a climate that was volcano-proof. One farmer whose crops failed that year was named Joseph Smith Sr. He moved from Vermont to upstate NY, where God personally told his son, Joe Jr, the story of American Jesus. You know it today as Mormonism.

This has been your Moment of Science, grateful for the traditions that can take a light joke in dark times.

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The post MOS: The Year Without A Summer, Parts 1 & 2. appeared first on SciBabe.


MOS: The Year Without A Summer, Parts 1 & 2.