Derek Pugh describes the history of Mount Tambora and its extraordinary effects on the world and records some humorous and wonderful contemporary travel experiences in Sumbawa just before the bicentenary of Tambora’s eruption, the largest in 10,000 years.
Before 1815, Mount Tambora was one of the tallest mountains in Indonesia. At over 4,300 metres high and, with a base diameter of sixty kilometres, it dominated Sumbawa and dwarfed Lombok’s Mount Rinjani at 3726 metres. But then, between the 5th and 10th of April 1815, Tambora erupted. The eruption was ten times the size of the better known Krakatau, and 100 times the size of Mt St Helens in Alaska. It was so loud people heard it 1,260 kilometres away in Batavia (now Jakarta) and 1,400 kilometres away in Ternate. Soldiers thought they heard the canon fire of invading armies and were dispatched to investigate.
More than 100,000 Indonesians were killed either directly or indirectly by the eruption, the resulting tsunamis or its deep ash fall. For example, Tambora Village was completely obliterated, with all 12,000 inhabitants and their king cooked by 800°C pyroclastic flows.
The eruption sent dust, water vapour and sulphur dioxide as high as 43 km into the atmosphere. Hundreds of millions of tonnes of rock, 50 cubic kilometres, were thrown skyward and today the mountain is only about 2800 meters high – it lost a third of its height! In the stratosphere the water and sulphur dioxide reacted to create a hundred million tonnes of sulphuric acid. This quickly spread around the world and within two months the earth was veiled by an aerosol layer of acid which reflected the sun’s light and heat and changed the earth’s climate. It was a climate emergency which lasted three years and became known as the “year without summer”. It was actually three years of suffering and misery for millions of people who were left without food and fighting diseases from which there was no defence. Wretched people across the world survived or died eating nettle leaves, moss, hedgehogs and cats.
The list of the effects of Tambora worldwide is awe-inspiring and warns us what can happen when the climate changes: Pugh describes the link between the explosion and the invention of the bicycle, science fiction, the Mormon Church, massive trans-global migration, the first Irish potato famine and many more.
Pugh travels through Sumbawa several times by motorbike and meets a collection of interesting locals and visitors: unintelligible surfers; four year old jockeys; a princess in her royal residence. He records an insight into modern day Sumbawa few have witnessed.