April 09, 2009
April 10 In History: Tambora Eruption 1815

A Wired article reminds that April 10 is the day in 1815 when the Tambora volcano erupted with full force (Volcanic Explosivity Index of VEI of 7), bringing a cold and hungry summer.

Snow fell in New England and Eastern Canada in June. (Quebec City got a foot of the stuff.) Frost was recorded in each of the summer months. Drought struck in July and August, and the sunlight was weak. Crops were stunted or failed entirely. Much of what survived and looked near to harvest was killed off by a September frost.

1816 weather was even worse than 1815, with widespread starvation as a result. Tambora was a bigger eruption than the better known 1887 Krakatoa eruption (a mere VEI 6).

The eruption even caused bad wine. But I bet the beer was still pretty good. So not to worry.

Even the wine from 1816 was bad.

Alain Vauthier, who owns one of the oldest vineyards in Bordeaux, France, keeps a fair bit of wine from each vintage in the cellar. He has an impressive collection, which stretches back to the beginning of the 19th century, but there are only a few bottles from 1816. Vauthier says that's as it should be.

"It is not a good vintage," Vauthier says. "It is a bad time, bad weather, bad summer."

Daniel Lawton is the owner of Bordeaux's oldest wine brokerage house. His assessment of the 1816 vintage is even less charitable.

"Detestable, you understand? Horrible," Lawton says. "A quarter of the normal crop. Very difficult to make good wine. Just a terrible year."

A map of volcanic eruptions in Indonesia since 1900 AD shows that Indonesia is an excellent candidate for the next huge volcanic eruption.

The Santorini (or Thera) eruption of about 1630 BC (the date is not precise) was close in size to Tambora. That eruption wiped out Bronze Age Minoans on a Greek (er, Minoan) island. But the biggest eruption in the last 2 million years was again in the Indonesian island chain: Toba about 74000 years ago

The scale of the Toba eruption is difficult to comprehend. Pyroclastic flows (hot flows of ash and pumice) covered an area of at least 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 sq mi), with deposits as thick as 600 m (2,000 ft) near the vents.

Ash fall was widespread over much of southeast Asia. An ash layer approximately 15 cm (6 in) thick was deposited over the entire Indian subcontinent. Our appreciation of the magnitude of this eruption continues to grow as Toba ash is recognized farther and farther from the source.

The volume of the Toba eruption is estimated at 2,800 cubic kilometers (670 cu mi). To give some comparison with more recent eruptions, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens produced less than 1 cubic kilometer (0.25 cu mi). Vesuvius (A.D. 79) erupted about 5 cubic kilometers (1.2 cu mi), and Krakatoa in Indonesia (1883) about 12 cubic kilometers (3 cu mi). Closer to home, the volume of Kilauea's ongoing eruption is about 2.6 cubic kilometers (0.6 cu mi), erupted over the last 22 years.

VEI isn't the only thing to worry about with volcanoes. Just how much of the ejecta is sulfur makes a really big difference with the weather. The 1600 Huaynaputina eruption in Peru was only a VEI 6 but it released so much cooling sulfur aerosols that it caused crop failures with famine in Russia and other crop failures.

Other volcanic eruptions of approximately Huaynaputinaís size or larger have occurred more recently, including Pinatubo in 1991 and Indonesiaís Krakatau in 1883, but they didnít cool Earth as much and didnít trigger societal upheavals. The reason, researchers say, may stem from the immense volumes of sulfur-rich fluids that fueled Huaynaputinaís eruption, which released an exceptional amount of planet-cooling aerosols.

So picture a VEI 7 eruption total with high sulfur aerosol content. Then picture a huge increase in food prices and lots of cold weather for a couple of years. Or picture a VEI 8 eruption if you really want to think grim thoughts. Hopefully this won't happen before the Singularity.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 April 09 05:59 PM  Dangers Natural Geological

auntulna said at April 11, 2009 7:36 AM:

Pondering the extreme magnitude and unpredictability of these events reveals political acts like proposed carbon taxes
to be trivial, foolish, and needlessly handicapping to all of us.

no said at April 11, 2009 8:26 AM:

Would a VEI8 in yellowstone destory America or could enough be done to survive, bunkers etc?

Randall Parker said at April 11, 2009 9:51 AM:


A repeat Yellowstone eruption on the scale of the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff event of 2.1 million years ago would probably be curtains for us.

Another catastrophic eruption is also possible. The effects of such a disaster are hard to even comprehend. Bill McGuire, professor of geohazards at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre at the University College of London told the UK Daily Express, "Magma would be flung 50 kilometers into the atmosphere. Within a thousand kilometers virtually all life would be killed by falling ash, lava flows and the sheer explosive force of the eruption. One thousand cubic kilometers of lava would pour out of the volcano, enough to coat the whole USA with a layer 5 inches thick." He adds that it would once again bring "the bitter cold of Volcanic Winter to Planet Earth. Mankind may become extinct."

That area also erupted 1.3 million years ago (Mesa Falls Tuff) and 640,000 years ago (Lava Creek Tuff) and erupts at 650,000 year intervals. So maybe we've got thousands of years to prepare. Then again, maybe it'll come sooner.

Bunkers: Sure, if we knew it was coming a hundred years in advance we could spend 100 years building a massive underground civilization.

no said at April 11, 2009 12:38 PM:

Well, humans have been around for about 4 million years? so if it didn't make us extinct last time its hard to see how it would this time when we have so much more advanced survival techniques.

How far would lava really flow, I know it looks dramatic on a small scale but in the context of somewhere the size of the USA its not going to to spread 'that' far.

1000km2 is only aprox 30miles in each direction? a big area but not compared to the whole USA.

I guess the time of year it happened would be important, if it happened in Spring it would be enough to cover most crops and ruin yields for that year. But if suppose it went off in Autumn, there could possibly be a chance to clear and plant some Spring crops, yes it wouldn't be good but there'd be a chance?

What kind of measurements can be done, can this thing take us totally by supprise or would there be a build up?

Could a super volcano be made to erupt by a nuclear strike on the right area (assuming there was enough magma below), ironic if all the Russians had to do during the cold war was 1 or 2 strategic hits and the whole US gone?

no said at April 11, 2009 12:43 PM:

oh, and is it certain that there will be another eruption at some stage or couldn't it be possible that something changes and pressure is overtime reduced perminantly?

Randall Parker said at April 11, 2009 5:12 PM:


I expect part of the human race would survive a VEI 8. But imagine it was a VEI 8 with a large sulfur component. We get a huge decrease in sunlight. Crops fail for at least 2 years, maybe longer. Then ice spreads southward. How long does the climate disturbance last? Can a big enough VEI 8 bring on an ice age?

Yes, the more warning the more we could do to prepare. I have no idea how long the build-up is to a VEI 8. I would be curious to know how long the build-ups are to VEI 6 eruptions. At what point is the inevitability of the eruption clear?

Paul F. Dietz said at April 11, 2009 11:58 PM:

These events are more common that large asteroid impacts of similar scale, I think. We could prepare for both in the same way -- with large stockpiles of basic foodstuffs. If we have cellulosic ethanol production those facilities could also serve as a backup supply of sugar to help tide us over.

Randall Parker said at April 12, 2009 8:19 AM:

Paul F. Dietz,

Can we survive above ground? If a VEI 8 comes up out of Yellowstone then how far away does above ground become untenable?

One advantage of below ground: It won't get as cold. It'll be cool. But not freezing. Go deep enough and it even becomes warm.

no said at April 12, 2009 2:24 PM:

in the same way as you get after-shocks from earthquakes, would an eruption as big as the yellowstone VEI8 be likely to cause ripple effects such as earthquakes in california.
I would assume yes with it being so massive, but I don't really have a clue.

TTT said at April 12, 2009 5:14 PM:

I don't think this was that huge of a deal relative to other events. Remember, there was also the Tunguska comet hit in 1908. Plus Krakatoa in 1887.

The Asian Tsunami in 2004 killed 300,000. A Pakistan Earthquake 1 year later killed 80,000.

Par for the course.

TTT said at April 12, 2009 5:17 PM:

Even if Yellowstone erupted and killed most of the people in North America, the lava would cool off in a few years, and the land could be re-settled. In fact, the volcanic ash soil would be extremely fertile.

The scientific knowledge of humanity would still be preserved by the people in the rest of the developed world, who survive.

Randall Parker said at April 12, 2009 6:15 PM:


Tunguska devastated a remote area. Krakatoa was a VEI 6 which is substantially smaller than a VEI 7. Tambora is the biggest deal of the last 200 years in terms of either volcanic or asteroid destruction.

The Asian Tsunami killed much fewer than a VEI 7 would kill today. Imagine a VEI 7 happening in a populated part of Indonesia today. Lots of proximal deaths. Lots more around the world due to cold and hunger.

Fertile soil: I was wondering about that. How fertile? What's your source?

TTT said at April 12, 2009 10:16 PM:

Volcanic soil is very rich in minerals. It varies by which minerals were spewed out, and how fine the soil is (if it is too rocky, it is not much use).

The Indonesian area is always geologically active. Look at the Tsunami.

Tunguska changed the weather of the whole world for a few weeks. Plus, if it had hit an ocean (75% of the surface), it would have caused tsunamis.

jjj said at March 4, 2010 11:15 AM:

what has been done to the tambora volcano since the eruption in 1815?

BabyM said at April 11, 2015 8:17 PM:

I remember reading about this in grade school. The story called the year "Eighteen-hundred and froze-to-death."

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©