Historical Randomness #8 – #Ashtags Then and Now (How volcanoes have messed with history)

So the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano is still causing chaos, what with thousands of people stranded due to the closure of airports across Europe and Twitter’s #hashtags becoming #ashtags. That said, volcanic chaos is a relative thing; throughout history, geology has had consquences for human civilisation way beyond the original impact of, say, volcano eruptions. For instance…

In 1783, Laki in the south of Iceland erupted, blasting 120 million tonnes of sulpher dioxide into the atmosphere. On top of a cloud of doom that had catastrophic effects for Iceland, this eruption, combined with the ongoing effects of the Little Ice Age, screwed up the El Nino cycle, leading to messed up harvests across Europe. The most famous result of this? The French Revolution.

Mount Tambora in Indonesia blew its top in 1815, the largest eruption in recorded history. As a result, 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer, again resulting in widespread, worldwide famines. In Germany, the lack of horses due to food shortages prompted Dr. Karl Drais to invent the bicycle; bad weather in Geneva lead to a bunch of holidaying poets staying indoors telling each other ghost stories, one of which turned into Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein; and the amount of ash in the atmosphere lead to spectacular sunsets that inspired the paintings of JMW Turner. Oh, and it leaad to bad weather, so it may have been a contributing factor in the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo.

The 1883 event is probably the most famous volcanic eruption in history, turning the sky red as far away as Norway (which may have helped inspire Edvard Munch’s The Scream). It was also the first major disaster that could be communicated across the world within hours, thanks to the introduction of the transoceanic telegraph; you could argue it was one of our first steps towards becoming a global village.

And that’s before we get onto prehistory and ideas such as the Toba Genetic Bottleneck Theory. I chose the three eruptions above because they took place in a familiar world that nevertheless got turned upside down by the earth beneath our feet. Here in the 21st century it’s easy to feel insulated from things such as Krakatoa, but the last week has shown just how vulnerable the structures of our society can be to unexpected elemental events.

In short…. If Yellowstone starts rumbling, start running….


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