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If you time-traveled back to the spring of 1815 and asked anyone in Europe — or, for that matter, much of the rest of the world — what world-historical event was going on that would affect their lives over the next few years, almost everyone would have offered the same answer: Napoleon’s escape from Elba and attempt to reconstruct the French Empire. Each and every one of them would have been wrong.
What they should have been concerned with were the eruptions of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, the biggest of which occurred 200 years ago this week. Tambora was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history; quite possibly, the biggest. The explosion knocked the top mile off of the volcano and threw about 100 cubic kilometers of material into the atmosphere, about 24 times more than Mt. Helens would in its famous 1980 eruption (even the Krakatoa eruption a few decades later would be an order of magnitude less than Tambora). Estimates vary wildly, but low-ball figures estimate that at least 10,000 people died as a direct result of the explosion.
But this wasn’t a mere local news story. Through a combination of the explosion’s size, the height of the ash plume, and their source near the Earth’s equator, the eruption affected the entire world’s climate for the next three years. Again, estimates vary, but it’s likely that an additional 50,000 people were killed by famines and crop failures as far away as the United States, and twice that number more may have died from the typhus and cholera epidemics that followed. Nighttime temperatures in New England plummeted below freezing at least once in June, July, and August of 1816. Food prices surged globally, tens of thousands of farmers and peasants were turned into refugees in China, and the government of Switzerland was nearly overthrown by riots.
The amazing thing about all this is not simply that no one at the time of the eruption realized its significance, but that no one would know its significance until well into the 20th century. The effects could be seen, but no one put the pieces together (to give credit where due, Benjamin Franklin published a paper that conjectured — in all of a few sentences — that global climate changes and volcanism may be connected, the first time such an idea had every been put to paper. It was dismissed out of hand).
Very likely, there is something happening — of which we are wholly ignorant — that will affect our futures as much as some of the things we’re currently granting our attention. It could be a natural disaster (or a man-made one), a technological innovation that changes things dramatically, or the birth of a new religion. On the other hand, it could well be something we’re already concerned with, such as a nuclear war brought on by Iran’s race to get the bomb. We don’t know whether our concerns are prescient, naive, or unnecessarily pessimistic.
But we’ll find out.