Volcanoes Cause And Affect: I never thought about this before

In the post about the Carrington Event, I mentioned the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815.  It was labelled “Year Without a Summer” because temperatures worldwide dropped by half a degree, leading to massive crop failures and starvation in regions with shorter summers (primarily, those north of 45 degrees lattitude).  And yesterday, I mentioned World Car Free Day, which was about encouraging people to give up cars and find other means of transportation that are better for both individuals and the environment.

What I didn’t expect was a link to a post from four years ago, about the 200th anniversary of the Velocipede in 1817.  One item I read pointed out the fact that the velocipede and bicycle may be an indirect result of the Mount Tambora explosion.  It wasn’t just human crops that were affected by the Earth cooling for a year.  Hay and other plants eaten by horses and cows also became scarce, leading to a mass die off of farm and pack animals.  The velocipede was invented (and thus bicycles and perhaps cars too) because people needed a means of transport that didn’t require animals.

A volcano gave us the bike

A volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia was the direct reason we got the bike 200 years ago … Confused? Not after this explanation.

In April 1815, the most powerful volcanic eruption occurred in modern times on the island of Sumbawa in today’s Indonesia. The stratovolcano has today a diameter of 60 kilometers, erupted a powerful fire column and produced violent lava flows.

The eruption led to a lot of deaths and extreme changes in weather conditions around the globe. The crops failed and in the following year – 1816 – and this year became known as the “year without summer”.

“In Europe this followed several years with bad crops. Livestock were slaughtered to prevent hunger death. Also the horses, which were absolutely necessary transport animals, had to die”, explains Reginald L. Hermanns (leader of the Geohazard and Earth Observation team) at the Geological Survey of Norway.

And what happened then …?

The German inventor Karl von Drais took the challange to find something that could replace the horse for transport. In 1817 he introduced “Die Laufmaschine”, the predecessor of the Velocipede. On June 12th, 1817, he undertook an eight kilometer bike ride from Mannheim to the “Schwetzinger Relaishaus” inn.

[. . .]

To put the bike in a larger perspective, Hermanns explains the issue this way:

“As you have read; A local volcanic eruption leads to a global impact on climate. Local reductions in greenhouse gases can also contribute to global effect. When we use the bike, instead of driving a car or using other motorized vehicles, we reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. By cycling eight kilometers on June 12th, you will reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and make aware of contributing to the green shift. The volcanic eruption in 1815 taught us that there is only one earth”.

The Mount Tambora explosion also reminded me of another anniversary: Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which erupted in June 15, 1991, thirty years ago.  It was the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.  Pinatubo stands as an argument for why governments should listen to the scientists and make fact-based decisions.  How many thousands would have died if Ferdinand Marcos were still the Philippine dictator instead of popularly elected president Corazon Aquino, if more than 60,000 people hadn’t been evacuated?  (See also: Cheetolini, Biden and COVID-19.)  Less than a thousand in total were hurt by Pinatubo.

From EOS.org:

Pinatubo 25 Years Later: Eight Ways the Eruption Broke Ground

From the first rapid assessment of a volcano’s history to insights on geoengineering, the 15 June 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo changed the way we approach and learn from volcanic hazards.

On 3 April 1991, Sister Emma Fondevilla, a missionary based in a native Aeta village on the flanks of Mount Pinatubo, on the Philippine island of Luzon, led a group of villagers to meet with scientists from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS). Fondevilla and the villagers told the scientists about a series of steam eruptions on the northwestern side of the mountain.

What unfolded next would change history. Somehow, against severe odds, scientists convinced officials to evacuate more than 65,000 people living in Pinatubo’s shadow. Their tireless efforts stand as one of the most successful hazard mitigation efforts of a large volcanic eruption.

On 15 June at approximately 1:42 p.m. local time, Pinatubo erupted—the largest volcanic blast since Alaska’s Novarupta in 1912. Its ash cloud contained 5 cubic kilometers of material—lofted to 40 kilometers high. Because a passing typhoon simultaneously brought heavy rains, fast moving flows of ash, mud, and volcanic debris called lahars rushed down the volcano, flattening towns, smashing through jungle, and smothering rice paddies and sugarcane fields. The water also mixed with falling ash, creating a cement-like substance, and many buildings caved in from the weight. More than 350 people died during the eruption, most from collapsing roofs.

From the USGS, 2016:

Remembering Mount Pinatubo 25 Years Ago: Mitigating a Crisis

Bursts of gas-charged magma exploded into umbrella ash clouds, hot flows of gas and ash descended the volcano’s flanks and lahars swept down valleys. The collaborative work of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) saved more than 5,000 lives and $250 million in property by forecasting Pinatubo’s 1991 climactic eruption in time to evacuate local residents and the U.S. Clark Air Force Base that happened to be situated only 9 miles from the volcano.

U.S. and Filipino scientists worked with U.S. military commanders and Filipino public officials to put evacuation plans in place and carry them out 48 hours before the catastrophic eruption. As in 1991 at Pinatubo, today the USGS is supported by The US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance to provide scientific assistance to countries around the world though VDAP, the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. The program and its partners respond to volcanic unrest, build monitoring infrastructure, assess hazards and vulnerability, and improve understanding of eruptive processes and forecasting to prevent natural hazards, such as volcanic eruptions, from becoming human tragedies.

The eruptions of Mount St. Helens in May 1980 and Soufrière Hills on Montserrat in July 1995 are examples of what happens when scientists are ignored by people who don’t want to listen.  But with a violent brute like Duterte in power in the Philippines, will he listen if the active Taal volcano is predicted to erupt?  Unlike Pinatubo which is 80km northwest of Manila (the jet stream carried ash north and east across Luzon), Taal is only 50km from downtown Manila, an urban metropolis of 22 million.  Even if Taal has a small eruption radius (say, 10km), there are still millions within the vicinity.

Here are two videos about Pinatubo in 1991.  The first is from PBS’s NOVA, and the second from National Geographic.


  1. atomjz says

    A fascinating topic! I wrote an essay on Tambora as an undergrad, and its effects were so widespread! If I recall, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when stuck indoors due to the inclement weather, and many of the yellowish-orange paintings of J. M. W. Turner were probably inspired by the sky in the aftermath of the eruption. I think Thomas Jefferson may have also lost a lot of his crops due to snow in July, as well.

    • says

      Another item I read (lost the link) said the “westward ho! expansionism” (read: takeover of First Nations lands) in the US was driven by the effects of Tambora. There wasn’t enough farmland in the eastern states, so they went south and west.

  2. mailliw says

    Someone should remind the German government that the bicycle is a German invention – and not just the internal combustion engine.

    They are currently considering offering €100 a year to people who switch to electric cars. I think they should be giving that to those of us who don’t own a car.

    Lobbying by VW, BMW and Daimler Benz has an excessive influence on German government policy.

    There were 4500 police in action here in Munich a couple of weeks ago to protect the International Automobile Show against climate protesters.

  3. garnetstar says

    Another interesting effect of Pinatubo was that it effectively ended US military presence in the Phillipines. Clark Air Force base was so thoroughly destroyed that it was abandoned. And, the largest US military installation, which I believe was Subik Bay, was damaged, but cleaned up to at least work somewhat, and then when its contract came up for renewal a couple years later, the Phillipine government declined to renew, and the US military had to get out.

    Not sure if that last was a direct result of Pinatubo, but it probably helped.

    The lesson: if you’re under US military occupation, just have the second-largest volcanic eruption of the century, and see what that does for you.

  4. avalus says

    Pictures of the Pinatubo erruption on TV are the first thing I am sure I *really* remember, together with a feeling of awe and dread.