Category: September 20 (Page 1 of 4)

The Eruption that Changed the World

At this time In nature, our world is engaged in fighting one of the most important battles it has seen, the battle to save our planet from the dangers we as a society have been inflicting upon ourselves for centuries. While the level of this danger is constantly debated, the most fatal mistake we can make is to not adequately prepare for the worst. Although Tambora was a natural event, and no preparation could be done, the societal changes in much of Europe after the event were not significant and disaster struck.

In his presentation, Gillen D’Arcy Wood spoke of how the social ramifications of the Tambora eruption were so large they could be classified as revolutionary. The extent of its effects reached societal, economic and cultural levels. This eruption affected global temperatures, more specifically cooled them, which in turn helped lead to harvest failures which devastated societies, including many European ones whose land could not sustain crops. The French Revolution was caused by peasant revolts which stemmed from this climatic period, as crop production dropped to extreme levels.

It is when we step back and stop looking events as individual occurrences that we can fully appreciate the interconnectedness of so much of the world. Effects in certain realms of study are linked to phenomena in others and studying with an interdisciplinary approach in mind can help us reach new conclusions. Just as how the eruption of tambora affected so many people on the other side of the world. Focusing on the global, overarching effects that this eruption had, like a Revolution, we can find clues in the climate change our world is facing which can help us fight it better. We can prevent errors of the past with a developed understanding of the present and with this, environmental catastrophes like that seen with the Tambora eruption will no longer be an imminent threat to the survival of our planet. Unlike Tambora, we are aware of potential risks of our future and it would be foolish not to address them globally.

Before this presentation, I was not aware of the Tambora eruption and nowhere nearly aware of the environmental effects it had on our planet. But what a liberal arts education has taught me is to view things with an open mind, and I am fortunate enough to be in an environment where I can question what surrounds me to a receptive environment. People learned from Tambora and instituted programs to help deal with the aftermath. We are learning today, and hopefully we will be able to use this knowledge to continue to make a difference. While we learn, we can connect dots and view incidences as not independent but all connected. I hope the future brings wide spread knowledge of how our every interaction with the climate can have significant long term effects on people around the world.

Tambora and Selective History

As much of the theme of this cycle focuses on revolutions, one of the most powerful takeaways for me was the prejudice and the influence of colonialism and power structures on the ability to produce history, as well as the implications of that.
The 1815 eruption of Tambora was quite possibly one of the most powerful and devastating natural disasters in modern history. The surrounding discussion over the publishing of the history of the event is fairly non-existent for the magnitude of the event that completely and totally affected much of the world. It is a particularly pertinent thought in the light of this insane election cycle, where the republican candidate has often criticized the democratic candidates for referring to climate change as a great threat to global security. One of the reasons that I have chosen Syria as the region whose weather I would like to study is because of the greater macro effects of weather on the region, including starvation, insecurity, and the rise of terrorist groups and the possible link between those and positive sentiment for these groups. This was evident in the way in which the climate change dramatically affected the poor population in the discussion of the journals of Mary Shelley. Here we say the dire consequences of extreme climate change, the type of which I very much hope will not become evident in the next several lifetimes. The fear and xenophobia shown by populations of people is evident in today’s Syria, which has a large population of suffering sick and starving people due in part to the climate of Syria which limits agriculture.
I think that in making light of the history that has been written, a certain Donald Trump has mobilized a strategy that is eerily similar to this time period. While the publishing of information and the continued disuse of the facts are severely different, the are also interconnected in they both are able to manipulate the way in which people view the current and the future. There is a mode of thinking to influence this outcome, to agency to edit, prohibit, or change the lenses through which people view history. There is a significant discussion in history classes around which people view history, and who gets to produce it. We read textbooks, which are supposed to give us an objective and factual scope of histories, but those are pre-determined to be relevant and factual by those who control what should be decided to be so.
On a more practical note, I wonder what would happen if a Tambora like event happened today, where a natural disaster so drastically affect more than one Western region. I make this distinction because it would influence those with money and power, but with limited geographical resources. How would established nations cooperate, if they did cooperate, to save lives and ration resources? It is important to think about how Globalization, which I classify 100% to be a revolution, and its related inconnectuivity, would dramatically change if nations had to compete within non financial markets to survive.

Teleconnections? When Science and Sociology collide.

Recently Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave a lecture about the Tambora Volcano eruption of 1816 and the “year without a summer” that ensued. His lecture was unique for two reasons. First; it connected the science of volcano studies and climatology to what is probably his first love, English literature in a cross-disciplinary way that we don’t often see in our studies. Second; it introduced this idea of dynamic “teleconnection” that I have not come across before that essentially means one event in one part of the world influences an event in a separate region of the world.

Typically, teleconnection focuses only on environmental and meteorological events. Prof. Wood took it a step further. He made the claim that an environmental event (i.e. Tambora) not only caused meteorological phenomena (the year without a summer) but it also influenced human events beyond just a recognition of it being cloudy that day. In his book, Wood made a lot of claims about this more dynamic teleconnection, but in his lecture, he stuck with two primary ones – the creation of the story Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the refugee crisis that the aftereffects of Tambora caused.

Here is why I have some problems with this line of thinking. While I do think there is value in parsing out what the inspiration for a novel might be (as someone who reads plenty of novels I am intrigued by that) I think it is a bit simple and maybe inaccurate to say “Mary Shelley would not have written Frankenstein had Tambora not erupted.” I am sure you would find many English literature professors or classical professors who would point toward the mythology Prometheus as the the guiding influence behind the theme for Frankenstein (titan given life and power by the gods), not the refugees or the weather. Any attempts to pick through Mary Shelley’s mind to find her motivation is just psychological guesswork and some rash jumping to conclusions. The refugee crisis being teleconnected to Tambora is much more plausible. The lack of a typical summer devastated the harvest and caused farmers to lose their jobs and caused a massive food shortage. That all makes sense. My concerns are that some of that information is incomplete. The economic and political climates weren’t structurally set to endure a crisis like in 1816. To be fair to Prof. Wood, he did do his best to cover that and show how Tambora exposed those already present issues. I just think sometimes when studying interrelationships of events we need to be careful we don’t fall into the “A leads to B and B leads to C” formulaic understanding of these relationships when there is so much more to these events to analyze from multiple angles. It would be like saying (for comparisons sake) Moby Dick was inspired by the growing whaling industry in the 19th century when there is clearly allusions to the bible and Shakespeare in the story that inspired it just as much if not more.

The Legacy of Tambora

The Tambora volcano eruption of 1815 is in many respects an extraordinary event in human history. On a small island in Southeast Asia, a volcanic eruption occurred on a scale unrivaled in recent history. It wiped out entire populations for miles around and spewed unimaginable amounts of ash into the atmosphere. This resulted in what Europeans came to call the “year without a Summer,” and caused a three-year cooling period across the globe in which crop yields declined, famine and strife became widespread, and humans the world over struggled to deal with the crisis that fell upon them.


While reflecting on the Tambora eruption and the events in Europe that overlapped with it, the early 19th century takes on an almost apocalyptic tone, with all four mythical Horsemen of the Apocalypse represented in some sort of historical parallel over the course of just a few years. Just after the Tambora eruption, Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, finally bringing an end to years of Warfare and Conquest at the hands of Napoleon and the French military. Just as these two horsemen of the apocalypse faded from Europe, Famine and Death came in the form of the Tambora eruption and the subsequent crop failures over the next few years. It is almost surprising that we do not see more of this theme take hold of accounts coming from Christian Europe at this time. Instead of biblical horrors, we see the first inklings of science fiction in the form of Frankenstein’s monster, a macabre parallel for the despised refugees seeking food at the time.


One thing that I found very interesting about the Tambora eruption was the far-reaching impacts on governmental policy in Europe. While it seems like a world away from the volcano, Europe was devastated by the crop failures caused by the volcanic ash in the atmosphere, forcing governments to respond to the starving masses begging for food. Would these relief measures have occurred without a Tambora-like event? If not, what would Europe have looked like today without Tambora and the subsequent social reforms?


In summary, I think the Tambora eruption is an extremely important reminder of our connection with the natural world around us. We may think ourselves safe from the forces of nature inside our climate-controlled rooms and built-up urban areas, but this is nothing if not a false sense of security. If anything, Tambora should teach us to take better care of the environment. Who is to say what kind of devastation would occur if Tambora were to happen today? I would dare say it would probably be even worse than in 1815. We are more reliant on a globalized network of human industry for our daily needs than ever before, and the planet is under an unprecedented amount of environmental stress due to human activity. Perhaps a Tambora-like event will be what we need to finally open our eyes to this reality, and bring about revolutions in policy that will address the pressing realities of the human connection with our environment.

Interconnectedness: Weather and Historical Conditions

The eruption of Tambora according to Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood did not just create volatile conditions over three years for the region it originated in, but the eruption also significantly altered the course of history for large parts of the world. For Professor Wood, these findings all began with looking through the historical record and asking questions. The period between 1810 and 1820 was a decade with monumental historical events and in particular the Western Academy of thought characterized this period with the fall of Napoleon, the fall of the British in North America, and the subsequent beginnings of prominence for the United States through continental expansion and industrialization. On the other hand, the Western Academy of thought also characterizes this time as a less significant period of widespread famine, economic turmoil, and mass displacement. With that in mind, what makes Professor Wood revolutionary is his detour from established historical analysis of the period toward those major historical events and he is more interested in the depth of human suffering experienced. With looking at the human suffering experienced Wood characterizes this period as being the result of a natural disaster that had altered the weather systems of the world creating chaos. Looking at the concept of tele-connectivity, Wood proposes the idea that for this period the social pressures that came to be within human communities was a direct result of environmental catastrophe. Now think about the idea Wood is proposing for a minute. That the human suffering that historians for a hundred years characterized as the result of the shock of war could be the side effects of a volcano. Even more noteworthy, Wood proposes that the information to the cause of all this suffering was also directly in the face of historians through art and literature.

In the midst of all this historical analysis and fundamental restructuring of what this means to our understanding of the relationship between weather and human conditions I began to question in my head to what does this mean to our present day situation? Or more specifically, even when we understand the tele-connectivity between weather and human communities what does this do for our conditions? Many of the students in the room voiced their concerns with our current climate crisis and the conditions that create displacement.Seemingly, it is widely understood that extreme fluctuations or even moderate fluctuations in weather create volatile conditions for people all over the world. So if this connection between weather and suffering is understood I guess my question is is the notion of tele-connectivity active or passive, and more specifically is it just an idea we acknowledge but do nothing about. In a world where ideas are presented as revolutionary but do not move past the institutional or academically bound stage, my question is what does the historical account of Tambora do for current issues of weather fluctuation and suffering? To me the ideas presented by Wood give us a platform to restructure our understandings of historical conditions, but it does not move much farther into the realm of discussions on climate change for me personally. So how do we shape these new understandings into revolution.

The Emergence of Art as a Revolutionary Language

Political cartoonist, Khalid Albaih, employs the use of social media to express to spread revolutionary thought through nations with strict and oppressive censorship. Albaih views the internet and social media as a “visa,” which allows the oppressed to demonstrate the truth of their nations to the rest of the world and gain support in their respective revolutions. In many of these nations published newspapers are heavily censored by the repressive governments, and serve only as propaganda, not an actual account of the nation’s state. Albaih discussed the emergence of the Arab Spring Revolution, and how this was really the first large-scale revolution that arose over social media.
A key aspect of the start of the Arab Spring was the involvement of a young democratically aimed population. Young, and educated people employed social media tools, like Facebook, to connect and organize a revolution behind the back of their government. Since Egyptian leadership had little knowledge of social media they remained oblivious to the coming revolution and had difficulty quelling the extinguishing the uprising. Many repressive governments blame social media for the rebellions in the nations. Social media provides a space to organize and discuss revolutionary ideas; however, it is not the cause of these ideas and thus cannot take the blame. Ultimately it is the repressive governments that must assume the blame for revolutions since they serve as the entity that inflicts harsh rules, thus causing angst throughout their respective societies.
When asked if he thought the Arab Spring failed, Albaih remarked that real revolution takes time. The Arab Spring only started in 2010, and throughout history the biggest revolutions have occurred over decades and arguably centuries. The people in Egypt have been “broken” by living under an oppressive rule for a very long time, thus their revolution will need more than six years to reach an end. The Tunisian revolution was mentioned as an example of precipitous revolution. The difference between this revolution and the Arab spring is the Tunisia was already a very small and open-minded nation, which had systems in place that could be utilized once their tyrannical leadership fled. Since the nation is so small it also did not have a very active military to oppose the revolutionary citizens. Egypt on the other hand, has a much larger population with over 18 million citizens. The large nation has a very powerful army to control its citizens, and there are no systems in place to replace leadership once tyranny is expelled. Having a large population means that it is also more difficult to spread revolutionary idea throughout citizens, especially since more of the population is uneducated. While the people of Egypt still struggle to oppose oppressive leadership, social media still serves as an important tool in maintaining the revolution and involving other nations.
Albaih uses political cartoons instead of blogs or other writing since image can serve as a “universal language”. Humans have developed an extremely short attention span in regards to what they view on social media, and images work best to reach the largest variety to people the fastest. Images also have the power to show as opposed to tell. An image is more effective since its message relies on the interpretation of the audience. This can lead to many different interpretations of one image, some of which may not unveil the artist’s intent, but this also makes the message more personal for each looker since their conscious plays a role in the message. When someone is simply told something, he or she is more likely to become skeptical of the message depending on how much they trust their source. The audience of something told also plays no role in the message itself, thus it means less to each member and is less likely to incite change.

Climate Change: A Modern Tambora?

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.

Tambora’s Significance to Us and the Teaching of Science

Before Gillen Wood came to speak to us and before his book was introduced in the class, Weather, Climate, and Society. I had not known about Tambora and its significant impact on the world. I am very thankful to have been informed as I was introduced to something with as much significance as a genocide does in history. I am also grateful to have been introduced to Gillen’s way of teaching us about Tambora, he has written scientific history in connection to human affairs, a way he knew this information could reach many people. Thus, not only has Gillen helped to shine light on a world changing event, but also, a whole new way of engraining scientific history in all people, even those like me, who do not naturally gravitate to the sciences.

Tambora not only affected the people and climate in it’s immediate surroundings but all over the world due to its particles that spread when they dispersed into the stratosphere. The resulting climate shock caused sympathy and violence. As Wood informed us, Tambora caused communities to fall apart. In England, for example, there was a mentality of bread or blood. It was the1st demographic hit where agriculture could not be done. People had to go far to reach markets for food but some couldn’t even make it because of the condition they were in. The wholesale grain prices over the years shows the tragic shortage of food: (in the U.S). year 1815: 100, year 1816: 124, year 1817: 154, year 1818: 127, year 1819: 86, and year 1820: 59. In addition, to not see children suffer from starvation and other suffering mother’s would end the lives of their own children. According to Wood, in China, children were even sold and in Indonesia they were entered into slavery for the same reasons, because at least they would be fed. There is no question what a huge impact Tambora had on the world.

Thus, Wood had a big mission, to inform others about this historical moment that is more than science but also, a part of human’s history. He made this event significant and worthy to everyone with his book by showing us that Tambora has shaped who we are and our atmosphere in some way. This was particularly a new approach for me that I am very grateful for, I believe this is the way to reach people and make them care. Furthermore, through this mission he has also helped people think teleconnectedly. As Wood said, we miss a lot of our world unless we think this way. Everything is teleconnected, just look at what he has accomplished with connecting social systems and climate to Tambora. Wood has not only brought Tambora to our attention as a revolution, he has brought us a new approach that can get our world more involved with what is going in our atmosphere.

The lack of knowledge of non-anthropogenic power

For years, humans have been influencing the natural world as one single species. With the creation of words such as “untouched nature,” we kind of distinguish ourselves from the environment that sustains us. Although we humans have been modifying the landscape intentionally selecting the species that is beneficial for us, we should not ignore the fact that a lot of non-anthropogenic power has also affected our well-being and social structure.

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A Lose, Lose Situation

I listened to Gillen Wood speak twice about Tambora; once in my Weather, Climate, and Society class, and once in the Continuing Revolutions Seminar. At first, I cringed at the thought of listening to the same lecture twice, but to my surprise, the lectures weren’t completely the same, furthered my understanding of the subject, and brought to mind lots of interesting questions. Throughout both lectures, I noticed that there seemed to be a theme of loss due to the eruption of Tambora. People lost their lives in the initial eruption, entire ethnic groups were wiped out, and many people around the world were forced the relocate due to the unfavorable climate change. This brings me to my question: “How much was lost in the eruption of Tambora?” and “What would happen if Tambora erupted today?”

In his lecture, Wood stated that after the eruption, the areas immediately surrounding the volcano were buried under 5 to 6 feet of volcanic ash; changing the land of Sumbawa overnight. Many of the villages were wiped out, and with that, we lost their history, their language, and any texts that may have existed. The  only record of the language exists in a dictionary that a European scholar was in the process of creating when the volcano erupted. Besides from this though, there are very few Sumbawan artifacts from that time period, with the exception of Chinese pottery found by archaeologists in the regions.

Now, why was there Chinese pottery in Sumbawa in 1815? There is one simple answer: because of trading.  We don’t know much about Sumbawa, but from the logs of ships and the discovery of the pottery, it is believed that the island was an established port that regularly used the trade routes. If all of Sumbawan history was erased by Tambora, we may have believed it to simply have been an island with a small population who lived in primitive villages. This shows the real danger of Tambora; erasing human history and keeping us ignorant.

Tambora had a large scale effect though, affecting much more than Sumbawa. The gases and particles released into the atmosphere from Tambora spread all over the globe within just a few short weeks. This blocked out sunlight, melted the polar ice caps, and  caused large scale climate change. The effects of Tambora were so severe that a large population of people in the United States and all over the globe were forced to relocated to more climactically stable environments. These environmental refugees were forced to uproot their lives to escape the fallout of Tambora. Now, imagine if Tambora were to erupt in 2016.

With our increased levels of climate change, I can only imagine that the implications of a major eruption would be near catastrophic. Tens of thousands of people were killed due to the effects of Tambora, and that was back when the population was close to 1 billion people. Today, the population is nearing 8 billion people, corresponding to a death toll in the millions. Agricultural and farm systems would be in a state of crisis, people would starve, many people wouldn’t be able to move to a better place due to the rise in prices, and it would be a lose-lose situation overall.

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