Gillen D’arcy Wood, professor of English and director of the Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, addressed students at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday, Sept 23, 2015. Professor Wood’s recent book Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, has received global praise.
Wood’s remarks focused on the ecological effects of Tambora and their influence on art, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and even church history.
“What made me want to study Tambora was how the story of this massive volcanic eruption actually tells a wider story about the relationship between volcanism and climate change, and then the impact of that climate change on global human communities,” Wood said.
The volcano Tambora erupted on April 10th, 1815 on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa.
“The eruption was the largest explosion on planet earth in 10,000 years,” Wood said.
The globe was covered in a veil of sulfuric acid that often blocked the sun in the years following the eruption of Tambora. The eruption of Tambora sent enormous amounts of volcanic matter into the stratosphere and caused abnormal weather patterns around the globe.
“If you took the entire topsoil of Illinois and Texas, and ejected it into the atmosphere, this would be something like the amount of matter that was in the air following the Tambora eruption,” Wood said.
He explained his background in British Literature enabled him to make connections between the ecological effects of the Tambora eruption and the dark British Romantic texts of that time period.
Wood said the British author Mary Shelley was vacationing with a group of friends in Europe during the summer of 1816, when Tambora’s veil of ash and sulfuric acid had reached the European continent and caused abnormally cold and stormy weather. Shelley and her friends were forced indoors because of the weather.
“They were unable to resort to playing the Wii or surfing the internet, so they decided on a ghost story competition,” Wood said.
The result of this competition was Mary Shelley’s iconic story of Frankenstein and his monster.
“The novel Frankenstein comes on the scene as an imaginative literary response to an ecological catastrophe and humanitarian disaster that was unfolding across Western Europe following Tambora’s eruption,” Wood said.
Mass groups of refugees fled their homeland because of the eruption’s ecological impact on their livelihoods. These refugees were mostly rejected by the upper-class. Wood made the connection that Frankenstein’s infamous monster also wandered around and was unwanted, much like these refugees.
“Frankenstein’s monster is essentially a figure of displaced humanity,” he said.
He explained that there was little ecological evidence of the effects of Tambora before the 1970s, when ice-core technology was first successfully utilized. This process allowed scientists to analyze large cylinders of old arctic ice and obtain a global sulfate imprint for the year 1816.
“Ice-core technology opened up the world’s climate archive,” Wood said.
He explained that those people who wrote about Tambora’s devastating effects in the years following the eruption had no way of knowing what the effects were like around the world. Recent computer simulations reconstruct what the global climate would have looked like with Tambora’s 100 mega-tons of gases into the atmosphere.
“The global consequences had to be pieced together,” Wood said.
This research connected both the Europe’s crop failures and a cholera epidemic in Bengal in the 1820s to the eruption of Tambora according to Wood.
“There is little in the way of indigenous archival documents about Tambora, but we do know that Southeast Asia was blanketed in darkness for a week,” Wood said.
He said that amateur weathermen in the early 1800s kept journals about the weather. One journal recorded a lack of sunny days in 1816. Wood said that in July of 1816, multiple accounts record that the sun never rose and this is a direct result of the sulfuric veil blocking out the sun.
Wood also discussed how the Tambora eruption affected Church history.
“Joseph Smith’s family was uprooted from their farm in Vermont, and moved to Palmyra, New York because of the poor weather and the failed harvest,” Wood said. “This move was a direct result of Tambora’s environmental impact.”
He said that Tambora influenced art after the eruption as well.
Wood showed the audience an 1816 painting by Caspar David Friedrich that depicts the tumultuous skyscape typical of the post-Tambora world.
“These paintings are an interdisciplinary bridge that offers accurate insight about Tambora’s ecological effects,” Wood said.
He then recalled his trip to the Indonesian island of Sumbawa to hike to the top of Tambora.
“At night we heard rumblings from the volcano,” Wood said. “My guide kept saying ‘I hope today’s not the day.’”
He assured audiences that modern volcanic eruptions will continue to have far-reaching effects on climate and society, effects that scientists are still discovering anew.