The 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer

In April 1815, a volcano known as Mount Tambora erupted in a massive explosion on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia. The eruption was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. It obliterated the top of the mountain and produced tsunamis, pyroclastic flows, and ash killing at least 10,000 islanders. The explosion propelled ash, pumice, and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and impacted global temperatures. As a result, the year 1816 was known as the Year Without a Summer.

The Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Advisor – November 30, 1815

The first mention of the Mount Tambora explosion (also known as Mount Tomboro) appears in our archives in the fall of 1815. A British paper printed a letter from a merchant in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) describing the scene. The merchant said they heard the volcanic explosions even though they were some 800 miles away. He told of falling ash and total darkness at noon. He also reported that the waters around the island of Sumbawa were so full of tree trunks and pumice stones that they were practically unnavigable.

In February 1816, The Evening Post in New York printed an account of Mount Tambora’s explosion. It described minor explosions beginning April 4, 1815, culminating with a massive explosion on April 10, 1815. A sailor aboard a ship near Macassar heard the eruption and assumed his boat was under attack. “On the 5th of April, a firing of cannon was heard at Macassar – the sound appeared to come from the Southward, and continued at intervals all afternoon…During the night of the 11th, the firing was again heard, but much louder, and toward morning the reports were in quick succession – sometimes like three or four guns fired together, and so heavy – that they shook the ship, as they did the houses in the Fort. Some of the reports seemed so near that I sent people to the mast head to look out for the flashes.”

The Evening Post – February 27, 1816

With nearly 36 cubic miles of ash, pumice, rock, and sulfur dioxide expelled into the atmosphere; the sunlight had difficulty reaching Earth. At that altitude, the sulfur dioxide reacted with water vapor to form sulfate aerosols, which floated above the rain and could not be washed out. One month after the eruption, papers in America blamed the unusual haze and weather on sunspots. The haze impacted temperatures, and the average global temperature dropped by as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

On June 25, 1816, The Franklin Repository in Pennsylvania reported that snow blanketed the area. Around the same time, The Evening Post in New York described freezing temperatures and nearly a foot of snow. Farm animals in Vermont succumbed to the freezing temperatures as long-time residents said they’d never seen anything like it!

The Evening Post – June 27, 1816

By July, things had not improved. The Alexandria Gazette in Virginia reported on frost and the possible scarcity of food. In Pennsylvania, the frost was so thick on the grass that it could be scooped up by the handful. On the other side of the pond, The Times in London reported, “The weather this year has been equally unseasonable almost everywhere.” A Scottish paper wrote of horrific hail and rainstorms across Europe that destroyed crops and property.

As fall approached, the Hartford Courant noted that 1816 would go down in history because there had been frost every month of the year. European papers complained that constant rains had ruined crops and created a famine.

Some estimates put the worldwide death toll from the Year Without a Summer at over 60,000. It would take scientists well into the 20th century to link the volcanic eruption and unusual weather of 1816.

If you would like to learn more about the Mount Tambora eruption and the Year Without a Summer, search™ today!

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38 thoughts on “The 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer

  1. Thanks for the article. I had not heard of the event. Just fascinating and keep up the good work. We can’t let the past die or be forgotten.

    1. I just wonder how the eruption of Mount St. Helens would rate against this one. Also we had the Iceland eruptions a few years ago which interrupted air traffic and other things.

      1. Mount St. Helens in 1980, and Lassen Peak in 1915, were probably just minor events in comparison with Mount Tambora. I’m sure though, a far worse eruption in the Cascades is quite possible.

    2. Read: “The Year Without a Summer: 1816” by William K. and Nicholas P. Klingaman.

      1. Thanks. I’ll put it on my list. Also, Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester.

  2. Speculation is that this event precipitated Joseph Smith’s family to move from Vermont to New York.

  3. Southern Illinois is known as “Little Egypt” because crops could be grown there in 1816, while parts north could produced little or no grain. People from Northern Illinois and Central Illinois brought their wagons down to buy grain.

    1. Yes, it was called Little Egypt because it reminded people of Joseph and his many-colored coat from the bible. People had to travel to surrounding regions to get grain, etc., much like they traveled to Egypt in that story. (Also, the first settlers in the area believed the verdant countryside in Southern Illinois looked like what the bible described as the fertile valleys of the Nile, and gave some Southern Illinois towns names like Cairo, Palestine, etc.)

  4. Thanks for the interesting article. I remember the old folks in my family talking about this. Probably the oldest narrative handed down from our ancestors. Frost every month and all the crops failed. And this was South Carolina!

  5. Has history recorded any further expulsions from this demon volcano since the great blackout of 1815?

    1. Yes. It’s still considered an active volcano. Last erupted in 1967. A non-explosive eruption though.

  6. I read all about this while researching Rhode Island newspapers, there was only one sparce potato crop that summer.

  7. I want to inform that there is a book in Dutch regarding the explosion of the Tambora (De schaduw van Tambora) written by Philip Dröge 2015 ISBN978 90 00343607.
    It even seems that the bad weather had a big impact on battle of Waterloo in 1815. The French army of Napoleon who’s force depended on the big quantity of cannon was less performant because the cannonballs that normally bounce on the ground and killed and injured the enemy now disappeared in the mud.
    Rik Pollet from Flanders-Belgium

    1. What I don’t grasp about this, is that the eruption was in april 1815. Napoleon was defeated mid-June 1815 (indeed under ‘heavy rains’ (wikipedia)). In this post, the ‘year without summer’ was in 1816. Apparently, the effects lasted 1,5 yrs or more!
      Does anyone have any info on this?

      1. It is right that effects lasted more then 1 year and especially in 1816 because the crops failed a second time. It took a long time before al the dust (and sulfur) precipitated from the atmosphere.
        The info about Napoleon was found in the Flemish neswspaper De Standaard (5 august 2018) under the title “How an Indonesian volcano necked Napoleon”.

  8. From reading this article and watching PBS TV documentaries, I have realized that Indonesia volcanos affected world climate four times..
    This eruption of not having a summer in 1816 prompted New Englanders to settle the Ohio Valley where the soil is richer, historians said. A later volcanic eruption in the late 1800s caused a decade of specular sunsets for a decade.
    Scientists say that tree rings around the world showed a really really huge volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in 535 AD. The island was half destroyed and the ash covered the sun around the world near the equator belt for 18 years! China merchants claimed they heard a low explosion hundreds of miles away, and letters from a Bishop talked about Italy only having four hours of sunlight.
    Scuba divers found where the volcano used to be, and scientists found that tree rings showed low growth around the world. The clincher was the volcanic explosion was mentioned in Indonesian religious records.
    The reason why Indonesia affects the world is because it is near the equator where the earth gets its most sun year-round.
    In Europe, the Bubonic Plague hit the population two years later. That catastrophe overshadowed the 18 years of low sun in nations nearest to the equator.

  9. This is a very fascinating event and coverage of what happened the following year. It was very interesting to read about how these events affected the Earth and the population.

  10. An unexpectedly “wet, ungenial summer” is how Mary Shelley described the summer of
    1816 during which she began composing Frankenstein. Mary , then aged 18, and her lover (and future husband), Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned and Byron proposed that they “each write a ghost story” to pass time stuck indoors.
    See, e.g.
    Mayer, Jed. (2018). The weird ecologies of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Science Fiction Studies, 45(2), 229-243.
    Guston, David H., Finn, Ed , & Robert, Jason Scott (Eds.). (2017). Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. MIT Press.
    Gordon, Charlotte. (2015). Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Random House.

  11. You mean climate has always been changing? Why didn’t they prosecute the surviving Indonesians for causing such a catastrophe.

        1. It’s either been explained to you wrong or you haven’t understood it. Or both.

        2. Look at the many Al Gore articles in the late 90s about children will simply not know what snow is by the year 2010. Thanks for playing though! The shills are all coming out of the woodworks! It sure didn’t take long!!!

      1. Who has ever said that “man controls the weather”? If you’re talking about the cumulative effects of human activity on climate, “controlling the weather” does not even come close to describing the argument.

    1. Why would they, since no one has ever asserted that humans cause every change in climate or weather. Silly statement.

  12. This article was very interesting as I am reading the novel “Patterns On The Wall” by Elizabeth Yates. It takes place in New England between 1810-1816 and provides insights into itinerant and farm life and how the cold weather affected the New England area. Highly recommend.

  13. It was in the mid 1820’s that my ancestors moved from southern Vermont to Italy New York. This may have a lot to do with the reason why.

  14. There seems to be an error in the article written by the author. Note the mileage stated by the merchant as approximately 350 miles and 250 miles respectively. The mileage in the article errors at 800 miles. Great discussions about historical events that were taught in high school history classes still into the 1960s. Too bad the young teachers and students are mislead in these past 40 decades in all topics.

    1. If you read the article carefully, you may realize the error is yours and not the author’s. 400 years is a long time to be misled, too.

  15. There’s an excellent book on this, entitled The Year Without Summer, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman. It, too, contains extensive quotations from newspapers of the time. I recommend it highly.

  16. A good article to show how sensitive the Earth is to change and how to dig into newspapers for more information. These days there is talk of climate geoengineering which considers blocking the Sun in some ways to cool the planet. But what are the unintended consequences we need to consider? Too much cooling may be a result.

    1. It does quite the opposite. It traps heat in and makes heat last longer without cool fronts. They have been doing this since 2008 and increased it when Fukushima happened. I’ve watched it as we don’t live in a high traffic air space and it’s a near world wide effect.

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