Gillen Wood’s talk on some of the teleconnections caused by the eruption of the volcano Tambora in 1815 invited comparison between the global crisis following the eruption and the global crisis we face today with climate change. How did the people who were affected by Tambora react, and how are we reacting two hundred years later to climate change? How might studying the history surrounding Tambora be instructive? Wood introduced some examples from the Tambora era, but he acknowledged the difference between these two meteorological occurrences. While these two disasters have similar elements and therefore studying the effects of Tambora can inform current analysis of climate change, the different scales of these two events make a comparison only so useful.
The eruption of Tambora, the biggest volcanic activity during the Holocene, only directly affected the climate of the globe for a few years after the event. The distinct endpoints of the disaster can be tracked from the time of the eruption to the dissipation of all of the particles it released into the atmosphere, which took less than five years. The famines, cold weather, and general hell that ensued across many areas of the world settled back to equilibrium within a few years. Disaster ensued during that time because many communities were only prepared for one or two seasons of crop failure, and the extension of bad weather for up to four years decimated populations. While the extent of the social effects of such a climatic shift can be debated, the physical effects of Tambora had a beginning and an end.
Global climate change, on the other hand, has no distinct end in sight. The aerosols will not clear out of the atmosphere in five years, nor with the carbon dioxide content decrease dramatically in that time. We must be prepared to withstand much more than a decreased growing season over the course of a few years. The areas affected by climate change have little chance of reverting back to their former states physically or socially in a matter of years.
The important lesson that we can learn today from Tambora is that the climate is connected globally, and that teleconnections exist all across the globe. Melting icecaps in the polar regions affect the sea levels in tropical regions. Releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in one industrial region can warm the air in a region far removed from whatever benefits are bestowed upon the polluting region. We should recognize the connections between all areas of the globe, and by extension recognizing that climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution. Tambora taught us that the ramifications of one event on a small island in the Pacific can wreak havoc on the rest of the world through the atmosphere. However, climate change, our modern Tambora, has the potential to be even more destructive because of its expanded timescale.