Chris Townsend at The Paris Review:
Last year marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora, among the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Next year, 2017, will be the two-hundredth anniversary of Baron Karl Drais’s “running machine,” the precursor to the modern bicycle. Strange as it may seem, these three events are all intimately related; they’re all tied together by the great shift in climate that made 1816 the “year without a summer.”
Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia—then the Dutch East Indies—began its week-long eruption on April 5, 1815, though its impact would last years. Lava flows leveled the island, killing nearly all plant and animal life and reducing Tambora’s height by a third. It belched huge clouds of dust into the air, bringing almost total darkness to the surrounding area for days. The geologist Charles Lyell would reflect that “the darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night.” According to Lyell, of the 12,000 residents of the province of Tambora, only twenty-six survived. Tens of thousands more were choked to their deaths by the thick black air and the falling dust, which blanketed the ground in piles more than a meter high.