In between Lombok (the location of infamous Rinjani) and Flores (with the magic lakes of Kelimutu) is the island of Sumbawa. It lies in the heart of the most volcanic region of the most volcanic nation on Earth. The two largest eruptions of the last 1500 years both came from this region. Lombok has never fully recovered from the 1257 eruption of Rinjani. Sumbawa still carries the scars of the 1815 eruption of Tambora.
To illustrate the importance of this region for major eruptions, Tambora is visible from the peak of Rinjani, even at 160 km distance. I recently saw the direct evidence of this when coming across a video of a Rinjani climb. The screenshot below is from the peak of Rinjani: unnoticed by the climbers, the blob on the horizon is exactly in the direction of Tambora. This single shot contains the two most powerful eruptions since the demise of the Roman empire!
Sumbawa is littered with volcanoes. In fact the island is mainly a collection of volcanic mounts. But one dominated over all others. Even after self-destructing in 1815, Tambora is still the highest mountain of Sumbawa.
The Tambora eruption is the largest eruption with historical records, i.e. in modern times. This is in spite of the fact that no one who saw the actual explosion survived, so much so that we do not even have a record of what the mountain looked like prior to the eruption. The impacts fundamentally changed Indonesia. It also gave us the first indications that large eruption affect the climate worldwide – even though that was only recognized a century after the eruption. (It is in a paper by Jacques Redway, Ecology, 2, 104 (1921), https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1928922.pdf). Krakatau may be better known, but Tambora’s eruption was between five and ten times larger!
Tambora’s remnant is 2850 meters tall, with a 6-km wide and 1100 meter deep caldera at the summit. We know very little about what the mountain looked like before the explosion. It may have been dormant for 5000 years, in which case it must have been quite eroded, but much of the shape was probably hidden underneath dense forests. The original surface is now buried under the 1815 deposits. We don’t know how high the mountain was either. There are estimates based on putting a cone on top but we don’t know whether there ever was a high cone. The mountain was a notable navigation point, visible from afar, but it never attracted anyone to actually sketch or paint the mountain. I therefore expect it wasn’t pretty – no Fuji-like cone, and it may not have been as high as often assumed. I won’t put numbers on it though – yet.
Why are these two VEI-7’s both here? It is hard to know why this region goes for extremes. Lombok and Sumbawa differ from the large islands of Sumatra and Java in that they are build on oceanic crust. The continental crust of southeast Asia extends into the Sunda Shelf, which ends between Java and Bali, just before Lombok. All three islands off the shelf, Bali, Lombok and Sulawesi have one or more large calderas. There is even a next one in the sequence: Sangean Island, east of Tambora. But whether there is a rhyme and reason here, or just coincidence, is unclear.
We have previously discussed the impact from the Tambora catastrophe on the climate, which itself changed the western world: see https://www.volcanocafe.org/tambora-the-lost-summer-and-the-hobby-horse/ The following description of the eruption is taken from there:
The trouble began on April 5, 1815, when distant cannon fire was heard. Indonesia had become British in 1811, to prevent the French from taking over; Sir Raffles, the governor in Java, send a regiment of troops to investigate the attack. No enemy could be found. The next day, some ash was falling and the sun appeared as in a fog. It was evident that a volcano had erupted, but no one knew which one. Earthquakes were felt in the east of Java on the 11th, and the Sun darkened further: visibility was reduced to 300 meters. On April 12, the morning in Batavia was late. People woke up in darkness, unsure of the time, and breakfast was held in candle light. The darkness began to lift a little by 10am, by which time the first birds finally began to chirp. The sun became faintly visible only by the end of the day.
The unknown culprit was more than 500 km away, to the east. Tambora had only recently revealed itself to be volcanic. Three years earlier, people living closer to the events first noted that Tambora had acquired a summit cloud which the wind would not disperse. Later, occasional thunder was heard. In 1814, a ship which passed close to the coast reported significant activity at the mountain. A cloud of ashes blackened one side of the horizon, looking to the world like a threatening tropical squall. In fact, it was mistaken for one and the commander of the ship took in sail, and prepared to encounter it. On approach, the real nature of the phenomenon became apparent, and ashes even fell on the deck. The stories finally reached Batavia, and a Mr. Israel was dispatched to investigate. Mr. Israel reached Tambora on 9 April 1815. He did not survive.
The eruption had two main explosions, on April 5 and April 10, with the second one being much larger. The first report of ash fall is from April 3, with early explosions perhaps on April 1 according to a single report. It is possible there was a minor event at that time. On April 5, the explosions were heard throughout much of Indonesia, between 6 and 8 pm. The sounds were compared to cannon fire. There had been several smaller explosion earlier in the afternoon, reported only from Sulawesi. Ash fell in Java on the next day, and the sun became hazy. Whether anything happened over the next few days is unclear. Raffles mentions that explosions were heard on occasion during that time (and remember that he was in Java, far far away) but other reports don’t mention this, nor do we have ash layers from those explosions. So far, this was considered a noteworthy but not remarkable eruption, from an unknown volcano. The people had known eruptions like this – ash falls in Indonesia are not frequent but neither are they uncommon. It might have been a high VEI-5 or even low VEI-6 at this time, but this is guessing.
It all changed in the evening of April 10 when the eruption resumed with a vengeance. From 10pm, the explosions again were heard across Indonesia. As far as central Java tremor was felt in the ground and the houses shook. Whether these were earthquakes is unclear: the ground may just have been responding to the air pressure waves. Ash fall became intense, and even in East Java a depth of 20 cm was reported. One of the many, frequent explosions seemed even more violent than the others. The explosions continued until the following morning when they slowly began to reduce. The ash became so dense that the sky darkened and the day was as night. Bali was in darkness on the 11th. The darkness reached Java late afternoon on the 11th. It remained dark until the afternoon of April 12. Close to the eruption it stayed dark for days. The sun did not return until April 14.
Now the eruption was unique – no one could remember anything like this. And still the source of the eruption remained unknown. Reports came in of a tsunami in eastern Java, although strangely this was dated to the evening of the 11th, long after the main eruption had ended. This was at low tide, so that the 1-meter rise in the tidal river did not cause damage.
Ships managed to approach Sumbawa by the 19th of April. Large mats of floating pumice had made travel very difficult. Only now was it becoming clear that the mountain at fault was one no one had been suspecting: Tambora. The town of Bima, almost 100 km from Tambora, was found to be largely destroyed, with the port damaged by a tsunami. Closer to Tambora the devastation was complete. Throughout Sumbawa, villages were found to be abandoned with houses collapsed and people searching far and wide for food.
On April 22, a ship came close to Tambora and mentioned that from a distance of 10 km, the summit of Tambora was not visible, being enveloped in clouds of smoke and ashes. They also noticed lava streams which had come down the mountain, especially to the north northwest. There are two obvious comments here. The lava stream was likely one of the pyroclastic flows, and the summit was invisible because it no longer existed. It is strange that no one commented on the change of appearance of the mountain!
Around Tambora are several additional craters, including on the coast. They may predate the eruption, but it is also possible that they are places of later explosions, where the hot ejecta met swamps or other wet places. There are reports that explosions continued until mid July. That is the start of the dry season, and it is plausible that the explosions after April 12 were caused by the monsoon.
It is remarkable how little we know. The height or shape of the mountain before the eruption was not known. It is not known after the eruption either. The singular 6-km wide crater shows that the main eruption was a single explosion, but there is only one mention of a largest blast, on April 10 or 11. There is only one description of the main eruption, from a Rajah around April 23rd. This mentions three pillars of fire from the summit. But is unclear whether this description refers to April 10 or to April 5, or even whether it is correct. It is one comment, reported second-hand. There is a lot of speculation based on this single observation but it must be considered as unconfirmed. We just don’t know.
Tambora before the eruption
Tambora is thought to have been inactive for a long time before the 1800’s. This is reasonable for the 1000 years before the eruption, as there was no history of Tambora being a volcano. There are some 20 parasitic cones, some near the coast, but those also must be old enough to predate human memory. But we don’t know the pre-1815 history well. There is no date for the last eruption before the big one.
Satonda Island, a small lake-filled volcano just north of Tambora, has been studied as a proxy for Tambora itself. The island is 2 km off the north coast of Tambora, is 2 km across and the lake is a double crater. It erupted similar lava and as such is Tambora’s nearest relative. Radiocarbon dating suggests it’s most recent eruption was 4000 to 5000 years ago. This is often taken as the date for the most recent activity of Tambora, assuming that the two are closely related and Satonda is in effect another parasitic cone. The crater lake is surrounded by a double tuff ring. The lake was fresh water at first but around 4000 years ago the tuff ring was breached and the lake became salt water. Some time after that, the island inflated by around 1 meter, causing part of the bay to fall dry. This happened after 300 BC. Was this the inflation that heralded Tambora’s activation?
What caused the eruption? We don’t know. The magma chamber was located roughly 4 km below the surface. The magma had been sitting there for a while but with little cooling. The earliest eruption on April 5 erupted the hottest ejecta. This also contained little fragmented rock, suggesting that it did not blow a large crater. This situation also prevented significant pyroclastic flows. The second phase came from deeper magma layers with slightly lower temperatures but also contained more rock fragments: the hole had become much larger, which leads to lower pressure in the rising column and destabilizes it – the column can now collapse and produce dense pyroclastics. These pyroclastics wiped out much of the island, reached the ocean and caused tsunamis. The pyroclastic flows reached perhaps 40 km distant. But this does not say what triggered the eruption. A possibility is that water had managed to get into the magma chamber. And why the activity in the three years before the eruption? And did the inflation at Satonda Island indicate a major recharge of the magma chamber? That also is not seen in in the ejecta. But it seems like the magma chamber wasn’t that old. Tambora was not a volcano at the end of its life cycle. It may still rise again from the ashes.
Tambora exploded some 150 km3. This number was first derived by Verbeek, the same person who first pointed out the danger of Krakatau, several years before it erupted. The height before the eruption is often said have been 4000-4300 meters, but a recent reconstruction of the pre-eruption reface suggests it may have been less than that, 3500 to 3700 meters. The mountain may have had plateau with a number of separate peaks rather than a single high cone. This would fit much better with the (lack of) pre-eruption records. Note that Tambora is not that close to the coast. A flatter shape would have made it a useful navigation feature, but not a notable mountain. It would still have been one of the highest mountains in Indonesia, but not the highest. A plateau-like shape excavated to a depth of 1800 meters would be consistent both with the post-eruption caldera and with the 50 km3 (DRE) ejecta.
Sumbawa is one of the larger islands of Indonesia. It is some 250 km long. Tambora is situated on a peninsula on the central northern coast. The mountain has long been known but the names have changed over time. In the 1500’s, when Rinjani was called Anjani by the Portuguese, Tambora was known as Mount Aram. Anjani’s name was similar to the current one, but Tambora’s was not, suggesting the Portuguese did not know the local name. It was impressive enough for them to give it a biblical name.
The name ‘Sumbawa’ was originally only the western part of the island, and was called Sambawa, a name derived from hinduism. The island was converted by force from hinduism to islam around 1620 but the names still show the pre-islamic influence. Because the conversion was by force, the people became slaves of Makassar (Sulawesi). The only exception to this was Sangar which remained free (or rather ‘vassals’).
There were six subjugated kingdoms on Sumbawa, with approximate locations indicated below. The kingdoms were mainly small towns located on the rivers and near forests. Trading was done mainly through Bima, where rice was an important export product. The island was also known for its sapan wood (sandal wood) and for its horses.
Two of the small kingdoms existed around Tambora: Pekat (also known as Papekat) on the southern shore of Tambora and Kengkelu (later known as Tambora) on the northern shore. The peoples had different origins. The language of the people at Bima came from Flores, to the east. The language of Sumbawa and Dompo came from Java, to the west. The language spoken at Tambora and Pekat was very different, and may have been a Papuan language. The people of these areas were also said to have had a different physical appearance.
There is indeed evidence for some sort of early trade between Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia. Bananas were first domesticated in the highland of New Guinea around 7000 years ago, and from there spread to eastern Indonesia. Different banana species occur in the mainland of southeast Asia, which were domesticated independently but later. The word ‘muku’ for banana is of New Guinean origin: it is used in those areas in Indonesia where this early banana arrived. There are many other words in use across southeast Asia for various types of bananas, of which the Malay word ‘pisang’ is probably the best known. The word ‘muku’ was used as far west as Flores. Tambora used the word ‘much’. The population of the Kingdom of Tambora may thus have been the westernmost point of the New Guinean spread. The spread happened before 4000 years ago.
Did the Tamborians come from New Guinea, 4000 years ago? And did they survive for 4000 years in this isolated pocket on the north side of Tambora? The location was a good but isolated one: the mountain slope provided fertile ground, away from the mosquito-ravaged coast but in reach of northern trading routes, while protected by the mountain from the people to the south. After such a long time, it is likely there would have been mixing with the people of the other kingdoms or the trading partners, but evidently the appearance of the people was still different. But after all that time, the very mountain that protected them would become their nemesis.
In one week, between 5 and 12 April 1815, the region went from relative wealth to complete devastation. All of Sumbawa was buried under ash, meters thick around the slopes of the mountain (hundreds of meters at the summit) and 20cm or more even at the corners of this large island. The typical depth was 50 cm. The north shores were also damaged by a tsunami which reached 4 meters high around the mountain but which was measured around of Indonesia. It seems surprising that an eruption at the top of a mountain several kilometers high and 20 kilometers from the coast can cause a large tsunami. The likely cause is debris flows entering the water. Atmospheric pressure waves from the explosions may also have played a role. Pyroclastic flows killed anyone within 20 km of the summit, and many further away. We don’t know how many people lived there: estimates made shortly after the disasters put it at 10,000. But that was only the beginning.
Chasse, who visited Sulawasi in 1816 on a fact-finding mission, writes ‘People still have little and insufficient information regarding the devastation which the volcano of Tambora has caused in 1815. The assumption is that the kingdoms of Tambora, Sangar and Papeka are fully destroyed and buried by lava, while the famine afterwards at Bima, Sumbawa and their surroundings has been so bad that many have died and others have fled from hunger to here.’
That is indeed what happened. Everything was buried in deep ash. People started to die of the impacts of this. Breathing in volcanic ash can be highly damaging: some people will have died of this. A plague of diarrhea began affecting not only the people but also the animals. Clearly, the water had been polluted. We don’t know by what: was it decaying organic matter? The abrasive ash itself? The suggestion has been made that it was a more common volcanic product: fluorine, an element that can occur in volcanic ejecta and was a major cause of fatalities in the Laki eruption. We don’t know, but it suggests that if we ever have another volcanic disaster, the first priority may be to provide clean drinking water. Up to 75% of farming animals died in this epidemic.
There was no food: everything was buried, inedible, and not growing. The top of palm trees provided some nourishment. People fled from hunger and started to scour the land for anything edible. Many fled to Bima, also badly affected but not buried as deep because of the prevailing winds. Others sold themselves into slavery on the other islands and in that way saved their lives. But that was not possible on the main islands (Java and Sumatra) because slavery had been abolished.
These other islands though were also affected. Already in April, a report from south Sulawesi says that there was 3cm of ash (one and a quarter inch, to be precise, but at this time the inch was not in fact precisely defined) with damage to the rice crop where the still young plants were fully buried, fish in the fish floating dead on the surface and many birds killed. Lombok and Bali were badly hit with 20 to 30 cm of ash. All their rice plants were killed and the people became completely dependent on rice from Java but without anything to pay for the rice. A report from Bali in 1816 stated that the survivors were too few and too weak to even bury the dead. This caused further epidemics. The poverty extended the famine which lasted into the 1820’s. Lombok had a population estimated at 200,00 before the eruption. This may have reduced to 70,000, although no hard number exists and we do not know how many died and how many fled. The death toll on Sumbawa and Lombok combined was given as 92,00 although again this number is very uncertain. The death toll on Bali was reported at the time as 25,000 and this is normally not included in the total reported toll.
But Sumbawa was affected the worst. The Kingdoms of Tambora and Pekat were fully wiped out, with the sultans among those who died. The Tamboran language, history and culture was no more. Elsewhere, most houses would have collapsed. The entire rice crop was destroyed. People sold everything including their children for food: one child could go for as little as 3 kg of rice. There may have cannibalism, and epidemics quickly took hold. The King of Sumbawa succumbed to disease. The population of Sumbawa was estimated as 170,000 (this is little more than a guess though). After the eruption, fewer than 90,000 were left. Perhaps 35,000 had fled the island. It took a long time to understand the scale of the disaster. The British send a single ship to help. It could do very little. (In fact, sea travel was difficult because of the large mass of floating pumice which took up to 5 years to disperse.)
Recovery took many years. Bali and Lombok found that the land had become more fertile, and after some years the rice crop began to increase as a consequence. This started in the late 1820’s and continued, so that by the 1840’s Bali provided much of the food of Singapore. Sulawesi similarly saw a good recovery.
Flores was affected differently. There had been many deaths (we don’t know how many) but there was an unexpected change. Western Flores had been conquered by the Kingdom of Bima and paid a large tribute to them, in chicken, dogs, horses, people (slaves) and other produce. Bima was no longer in a position to enforce this, and so Flores stopped paying. This benefit lasted until the 1850’s when Bima had recovered sufficiently to re-establish the old dependency.
Recovery was considerably slower on Sumbawa itself. The first improvement was on the mountain sides, where erosion removed the ash quicker than elsewhere. Villages moved up-slope. However, this was only possible after 10-20 years. On the slopes they started growing dry rice, rather than the previous wet rice cultivation of the lowlands. They kept their traditions, showing these were the survivors, not later immigrants. It may well have included people who had fled and now returned. In the least affected part of Sumbawa, the east, the first harvest took place 5 years after the eruption. In the west it took much longer. The forest was destroyed or inaccessible, removing the main export product, sapan wood. After the eruption, the local climate had changed. The surviving inhabitants told investigators in 1847 that it had become much drier than before. The cause may have been the loss of forests, which would have reduced local humidity, and perhaps the reduction in the height of the main mountain had affected the monsoon! But most likely is that the rain water now flowed underneath the thick ash and was invisible and inaccessible.
The region of Tambora was visited in 1819. It was described as ‘horrifying’. The ground was cracked and fissured, and travel near impossible because of ash and tree trunks. Bima was in better shape. The people lived mainly on the coast, avoiding the hilly in-land. The first crops gave plenty of food, in part because not many people were left to eat it! Trees here had survived but there were no people for logging. The town of Bima was described as ‘derelict’. Few horses had survived – previously Sumbawa was known for its horse breeding. By 1824 the Kingdom of Sumbawa had also begun to recover, but Tambora was still described as ‘a heap of rubble’. And only in 1844 do we have the first record of people returning to Sanggar.
Heinrich Zollinger visited Sumbawa in 1847 and gave the first comprehensive report. He noted that much of the forest had been replaced by grassland and that much of the wet rice fields remained abandoned. Livestock used these for grazing, preventing the forest from returning. Bima had largely recovered, and even the horses had returned.
Tambora was climbed for the first time (as far as records exist) by Zollinger, in 1847. The mountain was still largely a rubble field with few plants and animals. The crater lake was seen for the first time. By 1913, small forests had returned as high as 2500 meters and there was now some sparse vegetation in the crater. A report from 1933 states that from the
lowlands to the peak, after an initially barren, dry landscape, they entered a ‘mighty jungle’ of ‘forest giants’. Higher up they found a shrubland and the summit was barren with a few Edelweiss.
The re-greening had continued by 1947 but even at this time there was little vegetation at the bottom of the crater. It was suggested that the numerous fumaroles especially on the west side made condition too hostile. An article in the Smithsonian describes the view from the crater rim: Three thousand feet deep and more than three miles across, the crater was as barren as it was vast, with not a single blade of grass in its bowl. Enormous piles of rubble, or scree, lay at the base of the steep crater walls. The floor was brown, flat and dry, with no trace of the lake that is said to collect there sometimes. Occasional whiffs of sulfurous gases warned us that Tambora is still active. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/blast-from-the-past-65102374/
The wild life remains limited on Tambora. This is notable in bird species, where several common species elsewhere remain absent on Tambora. This is likely caused by the 1815 eruption. During the recolonisation, the early birds got the worm and the latecomers found their niche already occupied.
There have been small eruptions in the crater. A small cone erupted short lava flows at an unknown time, possibly early 20th century. There is also a small lava flow visible on the inner caldera wall which looks quite recent. But in the main, this is just a dreaming mountain. For all appearances, it looks like Tambora has finished. Whether it will restart its growth will not be known for centuries or even for millennia.
Very little was known about the Kingdoms of Tambora and Pekat. That began to change only in 1980. A logging company was digging a new road (illegally) through uninhabited, very dense forest near Tambora village, 20 km northwest of the summit. This new forest had by now become an important source of timber. The diggers found a large amount of man-made material; they gathered that it was archaeological because no one had lived there since the eruption. The remains were in a layer in between the 2 meter of volcanic deposits on top and the brown, pre-eruption soil below. Michael Hitchcock investigated the site in 1980 and 1982. Pottery fragments were found to include Chinese material, but with the glazing partly melted away. Coins that were found had been kept by the loggers, but they were shown to investigators. All were Dutch and dated to the 18th century. The latest was from 1791, more than 20 years before the eruption. Was the village abandoned at this time, or was it because of the Dutch trade disruption after the French revolution?
Full excavation started in 2004 and is still continuing. Not much has been published on this continuing investigation, but some descriptions have appeared. The first buried house was found in 2004, underneath 2 meters of ashes. Since that time, at least 4 more houses have been exposed (as of 2011).
The village contained several houses, in a line along what was probably a road. The houses appear to have been of similar design to what is still found in Sumbawa, build from bamboo. Several of the houses contained skeletons, in one case of a man sitting up with a ceremonial sword at his side. The bronze objects and jewels suggests that the people were quite wealthy. The various objects show a link to Vietnam. The wooden beams of the houses are burned: the ash that buried the houses was very hot. It appeared that the people stayed in their houses during the first phases of the eruption on April 5. They died when the houses collapsed under the weight of the ash and stone fall on April 10, and afterwards the hot pyroclastic flows burned the houses and the human remains.
The layering of the volcanic deposits in the area were published in 2007. The layers show the various eruption phases. Layers F1 is probably from the initial eruption on April 5. At this time, the people stayed in the houses. This is probably because the ash layer was initially manageable. The cataclysmic eruption came on April 10, with layers F2-PF1. This eruption came at night and provided no opportunity to flee. The top layer is a double pyroclastic flow, 4 meters deep – and this was 20 km from the summit! The people died in their houses.
The bottom of the profile shows the pre-eruption surface, where people lived. This surface is terraced, which indicates human activity, such as agriculture. At the very top was the layer of new soil, on which the new forest had grown. This humus layer was only 5cm thick! This explains why recovery was so slow here – the old soil was deeply buried, and new soil took a long time to form in this devastated land.
There is evidence for three areas of settlement around Tambora, from pottery remains. This one is furthest in land: the other two are closer to the coast. All are near springs or water courses, and the suggestion has been made that this indicates irrigated paddy fields. The coastal sites tend to be near harbours, although no longer usable as such since the eruption.
Clearly the land has changed. It was more cultivated and the people wealthier, than the old records mention. This was not an isolated tribe: it was a group trading far with contacts in Vietnam, and able to obtain Chinese pottery. We know so little about them because they were wiped out with little trace. But they were an integrated part of a wider society. This is Indonesia’s Pompei – a people well off, in their cultural prime, suddenly wiped out by a disaster they could not have seen coming.
What can we learn from Tambora? It is hard to know where to begin! We have not had an eruption anywhere near this scale for more than 200 years. What if it happens again? There are questions that need answers: would we have warning and would we recognize the signs of an impending VEI-7? Could we evacuate in time? And what would the rescue and aid look loke?
As for the signs, we really have little idea. The Hunga Tonga eruption came completely out of the blue. Pinatubo gave us 6 weeks notice, and recognizing the signs and taking precautionary action was one of the greatest achievements of volcanology in the 20th century. It prevented major loss of life. Krakatau had been erupting for several months but became dangerous only in the weeks leading up to the big one. We know that Tambora re-activated with a minor eruption 3 years before blowing up, and that there was volcanic activity in the year before the end. But we have no idea whether there were other signs. There must have been, but no earthquakes were reported and no other precursor event was noted. Was this a lack of communication or a lack of warning? Old volcanoes have a temper: they can explode quite suddenly. But one would expect inflation and perhaps drying up of ground wells in consequence. Verbeek noticed something worrying at Krakatau several years before the eruption, but never said what it was. But if there are recognizable signs, what can be done? A small area can be evacuated but evacuating an island the size of Sumbawa is impossible. How could one evacuate Naples? Tambora might even present a worst case, with a largish eruption first, so aid would be rushed in, to be met with a much larger explosion wiping out the area.
After the event, what could be done? Now, evacuation is essential but roads are impassible, ports wiped clean by a tidal wave and airports deeply buried. It could take weeks to reach the people most at need. From the experience of Tambora, the priorities would be to provide clean water and to bury the dead – very deep. In fact, cremation would probably be considered as an emergency measure. Where would the water come from? It would need to be brought in as plastic bottles, one or more per person per day.
Food would be next. Here we are probably set up better, with the UN having significant experience in alleviating famines all over the world. However, this always depends on access to the region. Even weeks after the eruption, this might be very difficult.
And then there are the refugees needing new homes. They could run in the millions, depending on where the eruption was. And after this, the slow recovery, taking decades.
Prevention is always preferable. We can’t prevent eruptions – but we can prevent some of their impact. Monitoring of volcanoes under suspicion is essential. It will take time to learn what the danger signals are. But learn we must, if we want to be ready for when it happens. The dark night of Tambora is our wakeup call – the lost Kingdom of Tambora our warning. Are we ready?
Albert, September 2023
(The following addendum is entirely made up)
Excerpt from the VC post ‘Looking back at Rome’, 12 August 2053
It is now 30 years since the dramatic events at Lake Albano, or the Gandolfo eruption as it is now known, named after its first notable explosion. We remember how the activity started in the mid 2020’s, first with an unexplained rise in the water level which led to the exit tunnel becoming filled again. The earthquake which later collapsed the tunnel was unforeseen and now the lake began to flood. Some expensive properties build too close to the water were lost.
When the water temperature began to rise, the first suspicions of volcanic activity were raised. Scientists pointed out that Rome itself was build on the ash from the two volcanoes on either side. But these had not erupted for a very long time and were thought safely extinct. This attitude continued even when fumaroles developed on the crater rim, and air quality at the town of Castel Gandolfo got so bad that people started to leave.
A small eruption on the lake shore occurred in early 2031. After that, the lake stopped rising and even started to go down. The scientists pointed out that this was due to extension of the crater, which improved drainage but this fell on deaf ears. No further eruption occurred over the next two years, and it was felt that the event was over. Tourists flocked in to see the new small crater on the lake.
The VEI-5 explosion on July 12 2033 came therefore out of the blue. In hindsight, there had been warnings, such as the increase in gas emissions. At times a plume was seen rising kilometers above the lake. But in late spring when air temperature rose, the plume had disappeared. The overnight explosion destroyed Castel Gandolfo with significant loss of life, and deposited centimetres of ash as far as Rome. It was heard across Italy. Aid quickly came. A meeting was called by the government for the following week to discuss the event. This meeting was overtaken by events and never happened.
On July 16, explosions followed each other in rapid succession and people began to flee. Evacuation of the region south of Rome was ordered but quickly found to be impossible. Naples had been prepared for such an eventuality. Rome was not. Three hours later, the dramatic VEI-7 explosion followed which obliterated the area, formed a crater 6 kilometers wide and dropped 20 cm of ash and stones on Rome, 25 km away. A few hours later the eruption column collapsed and the pyroclastic flows came down the hill sides unto the plains. Luckily the wind pushed the material eastward, but much still reached the city. Buildings collapsed under a meter of ash. Even now, 30 years later, much of the area south of Rome remains uninhabited and many buildings in Rome are badly damaged.
Much has been written about this eruption, the destruction in Rome, its effect on Italy and Europe and its impact on climate. But one question remains unanswered. While all the attention had been on Naples, why had the volcanic landscape of Rome been ignored? Why had no one seen this coming?