Sunday, 8 September 2013

An explosive and engaging The Year Without Summer

From The Week of September 2nd, 2013

Civilization is so massive, so ubiquitous, with its cities and monuments, its billions of souls and countless technologies, that it is easy to forget the degree to which its existence is poised on the razor's edge. We, its builders, had to be born on the right planet, orbiting the right star, inhabiting the right region of the galaxy. We had to come along at a time in Earth's evolution in which our natural predators had mostly died out, their remains spending millions of years being converted into fossil fuels for us to exploit. We had to avoid ice ages and killer asteroids, global plagues and seismic catastrophes. In other words, we had to be incredibly lucky. And yet, we do not think of it this way. For us, civilization is a permanent blessing conveyed upon us by the generations who came before us and passed on by us to those who will efollow. This is folly, a truth wonderfully demonstrated by William K. Klingaman's excellent work.

When, on April 10th, 1815, Mount Tambora erupted, sending millions of tons of superheated rock, gas and other debris into the atmosphere, no one could have conceived of the consequences. Even observers of this once-a-millennia explosion assumed it to be little more than guns being fired at distance. And yet, not only would tens of thousands of people parish as a direct result of this colossal eruption, but millions more would be threatened by its long term impact on the climate. For in launching 55-million tons of sulfur-dioxide gas into the stratosphere, the Tambora event supplied the fuel for the creation of sulfuric acid light enough to disperse throughout the atmosphere, helping to reflect sunlight, that would normally make it to the ground, back into space.

This triggered an episode of significant global cooling which, over the coming months, not only robbed the world of a warm summer but lead to the failure of crops and harvests necessary to feed millions of humans in the northern hemisphere. In Quebec, snow would be reported falling as late as June and as early as September, a dire circumstance experienced throughout Europe and North America. In time, conditions normalized and the climate settled back into a more typical disposition, but not before igniting apocalyptic fears and scientific fascination that would drive the former into the arms of faith and the latter out into fields and labs where they could begin to discover just what had happened to the world in that fateful year.

An excellent primer on volcanic eruptions and a disturbing reminder of our incredible dependence on the vicissitudes of the climate, The Year Without Summer is an entertaining and innovative work of popular science. Mr. Klingaman draws upon the surviving letters and works of temporary figures to describe the awful, summerless conditions that lasted, to some degree or another, for three years. But while first-hand observation forms the core of this account, the author has liberally supplemented it with not only scientific explanations of the Tambora eruption but detailed accounts of the other factors, like the solar minimum, that may have exaggerated the impact of the volcanic event.

It is impossible to read this work, however, and not be deeply affected by the tenuousness of our existence. The Tambora eruption lowered global temperatures by no more than two degrees. And yet, this was sufficient to kill off harvests and, thus, send millions of humans scrambling for food. And this in a time in which the human population was a mere fraction of what it is today. If such an incident was to occur now, hundreds of millions might well starve to death. Volcanos and earthquakes, comets and asteroids... These are dangers over which we have absolutely no control. And yet, we live as though we do, not only by reproducing in unsustainable numbers but by choosing to live in the center of most of our world's most dangerous zones. Only the powers of denial can be sufficient to keep us from completely surrendering to the fear of what may well come at any moment.

This is not perfect work. Mr. Klingaman would've done well to discuss in more detail the inner workings of volcanos at the expense of some of the internal lives of early Americans. Moreover, he might've done well to speculate on the impact the weather had on the politics of the period, but these are very minor quibbles in what is otherwise a rewarding and sobering read.

Fascinating work... (4/5 Stars)

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