Volcano Tambora and its eruption in 1815

Hell’s ash – What has the most powerful volcanic eruption in history done to humanity?

The eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora more than 200 years ago was one of the worst disasters in human history. An entire culture and three island civilizations were destroyed, and the entire Northern Hemisphere was plunged into a volcanic winter for a year. Scientists from the U.S. published a paper revealing a previously unknown consequence of the strongest eruption. “Lenta.ru” tells how science proposes to prepare for the coming disasters.

In April 1815, the activity of the Tambora volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, which is part of the Lesser Sunda Islands, reached its maximum, which led to a massive eruption of force seven out of eight points on the volcanic explosiveness index. The eruption released energy equivalent to 800 megatons of TNT. In comparison, the atomic bomb “Little Boy” dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 18 kilotons.

The ash column rose forty kilometers, and the stratospheric winds blew the volcanic material away, significantly reducing the flux of sunlight reaching the surface of the earth. A so-called “volcanic winter” occurred, and 1816 went down in history as a “year without summer. The cold caused crop failures and grain prices increased tenfold. Tens of thousands of Europeans, still affected by the devastation of the Napoleonic wars, emigrated to America.

Pity the fish.

The eruption affected not only the surroundings of Sumbawa Island, but the entire Northern Hemisphere. The average temperature dropped by 0.4-0.7 degrees Celsius, and in some areas by 3-5 degrees. Because of the cold weather the sowing period was reduced and four waves of abnormal summer frosts (6-11 June, 9-11 July, 21 and 30 August 1816) destroyed a considerable part of the harvest in the USA, Canada and Northern Europe. The effects of the eruption were felt for another ten years.

Karen Alexander of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, along with other ecologists, climatologists, and historians, conducted her own research to find out how lives changed after the Tambora eruption. She paid particular attention to fish populations and commercial fisheries.

“We approached our work as a forensic study. There was a lot of research about how the 17-month volcanic winter, because of the Tambora eruption, had a huge impact on the United States, Europe, China and many other countries. But no one has studied changes in the coastal ecosystem and fisheries during that period,” the scientist says.

The study, which combines the social and natural sciences, used data on fish exports, weather, dam construction and the rate of urban growth near the Gulf of Maine in the United States. The effects of the freeze are obvious – a drop in crop yields, an increase in fish mortality – so the focus was on the social aspects.

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In the 1800s the serospinx fish was extremely important to the economy: as a foodstuff, an export item, it was used as poultry feed and fertilizer. Because of the 1816 cold snap, the population of serospinx in the waters of the Gulf of Maine declined dramatically. Infrastructure had to be rebuilt and the export and consumption of mackerel, which were unaffected by the frost, had to be established.

In the 1800s, grayling fish were extremely important to the economy

In the 1800s, grayling fish were extremely important to the economy

Photo: Erica Capuana / New York State Department of Environmental Conservation via AP

U.S. scientists believe the methods used to study the Gulf of Maine during the volcanic winter will be useful in the future of possible climate change. A comprehensive historical approach can provide answers to many complex questions. Researchers remind us that the climate has not been stable recently and recommend being prepared for such emergencies.

Volcanic Winter

The explosion was heard at a distance of 2.6 thousand kilometers from the volcano, the ash spread to 1.3 thousand kilometers. The volcano’s cone was turned around and a giant caldera, seven kilometers in diameter and 600-700 meters deep, was formed. The explosion reduced the height of the volcano by 1.6 kilometers (from 4.3 to 2.7 kilometers). 150 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash were ejected into the atmosphere. Heavy ash clouds dissipated only two weeks later, tiny particles of ash remained in the atmosphere for several more years at a height of up to 30 kilometers.

About 11,000 people were killed, mostly by pyroclastic flows. The islands of Indonesia were struck by a four-meter-high tsunami that took about five thousand lives. Another 50,000 died from the consequences of the eruption, like starvation and disease. Severe climate change caused a typhus epidemic in southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean as well as the emergence of a new strain of cholera in Bengal.

Tambora Volcano.

Photo: Iwan Setiyawan / KOMPAS Images / AP

Three island kingdoms – Pekat, Sangar and Tambora – disappeared from the face of the earth. An entire culture was destroyed along with its language, Tambor, perhaps the most western Papuan language. Archaeologists excavated an entire village at the site of the eruption, where more than ten thousand people lived. Found unusual houses on stilts with bamboo walls, a lot of dishes and tools.

Because of the volcanic ash that spread across the planet, England experienced long twilight and sunsets. The twilight sky near the horizon was usually orange, red with purple or pink. It even affected the painting of the time – paintings of those years were dominated by just such shades.

A New Threat

Judging by the latest work of scientists, similar catastrophes can happen again. Tambora itself is no longer as threatening as it once was. Since the eruption in 1880, no increase in seismic activity was recorded here. However, inside the main caldera and around the parasitic cones are constantly being checked, a plan to prevent and eliminate possible emergencies has been developed.

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Smoky Pektusan North Korean supervolcano proved to be a source of deadly danger

The Korean dormant volcano Paktusan attracts the most attention now. Specialists from North Korea, along with Western colleagues, have also studied data on the volcanic winter of 1816 and concluded that a volcanic eruption on the border between North Korea and China could be even scarier than the 200-year old explosion.

By analyzing pumice, volcanic crystals, and their inclusions, scientists calculated the volume of gases contained in the Earth’s crust before the 969 eruption of Pektusan, allowing them to judge the amount of sulfur dioxide released. The maximum estimate of the amount of sulfur released in the eruption exceeds what entered the atmosphere after the Tambora explosion. So, Pactusan could cause a volcanic winter even more severe than the one in 1816.

Tambora volcano on the island of Sumbawa. Indonesia

Exotic Indonesia is full of surprises and attractions. Since this multi-island state is located in the Pacific Volcanic Ring of Fire, you can find volcanoes on most of the islands. It can be a dormant volcano, such as Merbabu on Java, or as active as Sinabung in Sumatra and Agung Volcano in Bali. In general it should be noted that many volcanoes in Indonesia are active and quite dangerous.

Now we will talk about one of them. It is an active stratovolcano Tambora, located in the northern part of the island of Sumbawa in the center of the Sanggar Peninsula (which appeared because of this volcano).

Tambora Volcano.

Tambora volcano on a map

  • Geographic coordinates ( -8.248925, 117.991723 )
  • Distance from Jakarta the capital of Indonesia 1260 km in a straight line
  • Nearest Sultan Muhammad Salahuddin Airport 85 kilometers southeast

The Tambora volcano is now 2,722 meters above sea level. But this was not always the case. Researchers suggest that the volcano formed at least 57,000 years ago at the junction of slow-moving portions of the earth’s surface (the so-called active subduction zone). Its elevation was 4,300 meters above sea level until the early 19th century. At that time, Tambora was a typical conical volcano with a single crater. Its structure resembled that of Fujiyama volcano in Japan.

The base of the volcano was about 60 kilometers in diameter. Periodically lava streams gushed out of the crater and flowed down the slopes. As they gradually solidified, they formed the surface of the peninsula. But the magmatic masses inside the volcano were continuously piling up and waiting in the wings.

Now its caldera, more than 6.5 kilometers in diameter, is clearly visible from space. At the bottom of the crater is a lake measuring approximately 900 x 530 meters. It is formed by natural sediments. The top of Tambora (2,722 meters) is the highest point on Sumbawa Island.

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The lake at the bottom of the crater of Tambora Volcano Giant Caldera of Volcano Tambora

Beautiful surroundings, tropical jungle and exotic animals make the places around the volcano attractive. But this is not what Volcano Tambora is famous for. Did you notice that only a little more than 2,700 meters remain of the 4,300-meter high volcano? Where did the rest of the meters go? Read on.

What was Volcano Tambora famous for in 1815?

Every volcano is asleep and wants to be famous. Tambora is no exception. What’s a volcano famous for? An eruption, of course. And the bigger the eruption, the bigger the glory. In April 1815, Volcano Tambora gave the world a tremendous shake. Magma, built up for thousands of years inside the volcano, erupted with a tremendous roar. The powerful eruption literally and figuratively shook the entire planet, causing enormous damage to humanity.

After the eruption, a giant caldera over 6,500 meters in diameter and up to 700 meters deep was formed. The height of the volcano was almost halved to 2,750 meters (plus or minus 50 meters). The power of the eruption reached a mark of 7 on the volcanic scale, and the energy released by Tambora was 4 times greater than the energy released by Krakatoa when it erupted in 1883. Volcanologists estimate that Tambora was 800,000 kilotons of TNT equivalent, or about 40,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the Americans dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. The volcano ejected up to 180 km3 of rock, weighing about 140 million tons.

Comparison of volcanic eruptions

The eruption of Mount Tambora compared with other major eruptions

The level of emissions is evidenced by the fact that Greenland’s glaciers nowadays, analyses of ice cores have found elevated concentrations of contaminants, indicating a large eruption around 1815.

History of the Tambora volcanic eruption

Since 1811, large areas of present-day Indonesia were occupied by Britain, so most of the information came from representatives of the colonial administration.

For a long time the Tambora volcano was asleep, waiting and gathering incredible power in a fist. Magma was accumulating in the depths of the volcano, and the pressure was increasing to 5,000 bar. That’s about 4930 atmospheres. For example, a car washer generates a pressure of about 20-150 bar. Imagine what force lurked in Tambor. Along with the pressure, the temperature rose, reaching values of 850 o C. And that’s 200 degrees above the melting point of aluminum.

The most powerful eruption of the Tambora volcano

The first signs of volcano’s awakening were in 1812. At that time, a rumble was heard in the depths and a dark cloud formed over the crater.

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On April 5, 1815 the first impressive explosion was heard, which was heard even at a distance of 1000 kilometers. The next day a full-scale eruption began. The ash reached the east coast of the island of Java, 400 kilometers from the epicenter.

The eruption was intensifying. On the 10th of April, explosions could be heard as far as 2600 kilometers away. Pillars of flame from the mouth of the volcano joined together, and the entire volcano was a continuous stream of liquid fire. All this was accompanied by strong pyroclastic flows.

Recall, this is a mixture of hot volcanic gases and rocks. Usually such a flow, with temperatures up to 800 o C and speeds up to 700 km/h, literally kills everything in its path.

The flow of gases spreading within a radius of 20 kilometers from the crater destroyed entire villages in a few minutes and killed thousands of people in the area. Large chunks of volcanic pumice and tons of ash fell from the sky. Explosions continued until July 15, and smoke was seen until August 23. The ash reached the island of South Sulawesi and West Java. Diagram of the ash wave propagation can be seen in the photo below.

The spread of ash from volcano Tambora

Diagram of ash wave propagation from Tambora

Volcanic ash rose to a height of up to 43 kilometers, mixed with the rain, turned into a poisonous slurry and fell for another week. In addition, from a few months to a few years at a height of 10-30 kilometers there was a huge amount of tiny ash particles. Of course, such a colossal eruption was not without victims.

Scientists are still arguing about how many people died in the eruption of Volcano Tambora, but it is agreed that the count runs into the tens of thousands. And most of the population died not from the eruption itself, but from its consequences.

The number of casualties during the eruption itself is estimated at 10-12 thousand people. After the catastrophe another 60-70 thousand people died. Explosions of the Tambora volcano were accompanied by a tsunami with waves several meters high. Only from a tsunami on neighboring islands more than 4600 people were killed.

There are reports that the number of victims is approaching 100,000, but this is a bit of an exaggeration. Most scientists believe that the eruption killed about 71,000 people.

During the eruption, all the vegetation on the island was destroyed. The uprooted trees were mixed with ash and pumice to form a clumpy raft-like layer up to five kilometers in size. One such stratum was found in the Indian Ocean near Calcutta in early October 1815.

Consequences of the eruption

As John Silver the pirate said in the Treasure Island cartoon, “And the living will envy the dead.” This phrase turned out to apply to the volcano and its eruption. Most of the first people died almost instantly. And the subsequent ones had to suffer, because after the cataclysm the ash destroyed all agriculture in the vicinity and killed a huge number of animals (both domestic and wild). Famine and disease began to wipe out the population. The following year, 1816, is remembered in world history as “the year without summer”. Because of the rampage of the Tambora volcano there were global anomalies with the climate. After the eruption within a radius of 500 kilometers there was darkness for several days. Volcanic ash covered the sky. Mankind has learned what a “volcanic winter” is.

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The average temperature on the planet at that time dropped by 1 o C and in some places by 4-5 o C. This led to difficulties in agriculture. Grain yields declined significantly. In 1817, grain prices increased 10-fold, and the population around the volcano suffered and died from starvation and breakout diseases. The recovery of agriculture in the area did not begin until 1907. And in 1930 there were already coffee plantations.

The eruption wiped out an entire Aboriginal culture on Sumbawa Island and along with its inhabitants, one of the Papuan languages, Tambor, died out.

This is proven by the excavations of 2004. Then archaeologists found the remains of this culture under a three-meter layer of caked ash and pyroclastic sediments and the remains of people preserved in the positions in which they were caught dead. This place was even called Eastern Pompeii (by analogy with the city of Pompeii, destroyed in a short time by the volcano Vesuvius in 79).

Excavations at Volcano Tambora

The eruption of Volcano Tambora killed tens of thousands of people

Volcano Tambora is still active to this day, occasionally spewing smoke and small streams of lava. Minor eruptions occurred in 1880 and 1967. Increases in seismic activity were recorded in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Despite its deadly history, Tambora attracts more than just volcanologists, biologists and archaeologists. Tourists also come to see the volcano. They usually try to get to the top, to the huge caldera.

How to get to the top of the volcano

There are two main routes to the top. The first begins from the village of Doro Mboha on the south side and leads to the southern part of the crater. Remarkably, this route takes a good road to an altitude of 1,950 meters above sea level. Directly to the edge of the caldera have to walk another hour or so. The second route is from the village of Pancasila (on the northwest side of the volcano). This route can be overcome only on foot.

At the edge of Volcano Tambora's caldera

2 people on the edge of Tambora volcano caldera. Feel the scale.

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