Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood (2014)

Tambora The Eruption that Changed the WorldVolcanoes capture our attention with their staggering power and destruction. Of course we here in B.C. know Mount St. Helens, and you’ve likely heard of Krakatau that killed more than 35,000 in 1883, mostly from tsunamis. You may recall the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, sending 5 cubic kilometres of rock, ash and dust into the air. The ash in the atmosphere deflected the sun’s warmth for two years, creating cooler, wetter summers in North America and deeper droughts in Africa. Well, the 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora was six times the magnitude of Pinatubo, contaminating fresh water and causing three years of successive crop failures due to cool weather, though no one made the connection at the time. Hundreds of thousands starved around the world. In the Northeast US, the 1816 growing season fell from its norm of about 150 days to only 65. (In a lucky break, the West was spared and its bountiful harvests staved off national disaster for Americans.) Tambora is possibly the largest eruption on the historic record and yet it has escaped public attention, a situation Wood set out to change on the occasion of the event’s bicentennial anniversary. In this interdisciplinary study of Tambora’s eruption, Wood turns to climate and meteorological sciences, military history, political writings, and even the 19th century poetry of Byron, Shelley and Li Yuyang and art of Turner and Constable, to demonstrate the global impact of the eruption, but more importantly, the impact of climate change. He’s not a scientist, but is a professor of English who also writes on environmental history. He is thus well placed to deliver this cautionary tale intended to grab the attention of climate science deniers who dismiss the importance of a single degree. Tambora’s weather havoc was caused by less than a degree of change, and thankfully only temporary, yet its impact was global in reach and scope. Renaissance readers will thrill to watch Wood tease out historical and cultural threads and draw them together in a short (about 230 pages) narrative that reveals the full environmental, social and political story of Tambora’s eruption. He even manages to make the case that post-eruption cool weather in China’s Yunnan province specifically led to its emergence as a global opium powerhouse. It is meticulously researched, carefully footnoted, and includes an extensive, well designed index. Illustrations of contemporary art would be more powerful in colour, though.
More discussion and reviews of this book: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18607842


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