Gillen Wood is an interesting character. He is an English professor and writer, who happens to be among the most knowledgeable researchers on the Tambora volcano. The Tambora volcano eruption, also known as the Eruption of 1815, is without doubt the largest environmental disaster of that time. Most interesting, however, is that even though Tambora was such a massive event, most people today have never heard of it. Even worse, the Abdication of Napoleon, which also occurred in 1815, overshadows Tambora ten fold.
Why was Tambora so important? Is it the nearly 100,000 people who died from direct effects relating to the eruption? More likely it is the devastating environmental impact that has affected species for over 200 years. 1816, often called the “year without a summer,” was the most dramatic visualization of the impact of the 1815 eruption. The global temperature dropped by a full degree Fahrenheit. The new york times states that 1816 had “so much cold weather and torrential rain” that it wholly deserved it’s moniker. Switzerland was among the hardest hit areas after the eruption; summer time, during mid june was when the torrential rain, and atypical weather began. Mary Shelly writes that june had “as almost perpetual rain.” Numerous other volcanic eruptions had weakened the environment and the soil so much that areas that had normally been regions of crop prosperity had not seen agricultural success in years. Tambora was the cherry on top of sunday that was the terrible European living environment of 1816. Europe suffered massive food shortages, leading to violent and uncontrolled food riots. Switzerland was by far the most violent territory – so violent that the government of Switzerland declared itself in a state of emergency. As it was landlocked, there were no ports to help lessen the food shortages.
The East Indian eruption impacted more than just Europe, as North America and Asia were also greatly affected. The weather in New England was so drastically different than usual that the corn crop bloomed significantly ahead of schedule, causing the crop to ripen so dramatically that the crop largely failed. Reportedly, only one quarter of the expected crop output was usable.
According to Gillen, any present day environmental issue, such as the droughts in India, the wild fires in California, or the spreading of Zika, had an analogous Tambora related environmental concern. In the Yunnan region of China, known specifically for it’s farm land and crop growth, experienced incredibly low temperatures. Such a small amount of rice could grow that widespread famine ensued. Reportedly, fields had frost instead of rice.
I was lucky enough to have Gillen Wood as a lecturer in two classes. Both times he conducted engaging, informative, and interesting classes. It was a real treat to have a visiting professor put so much effort and sincerity into his work. I look forward to reading more of his work, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World.