Tag Archives: Guest_Post

Volcanic ash and the creation of Frankenstein

Guest Post by Janet Reyes, Geospatial Information Librarian, Maps & GIS Unit, Orbach Science Library

Map of unusually cold temperatures in Europe during the summer of 1816  Source

It’s always interesting when seemingly unrelated events do in fact have a connection. You’ve probably heard the notion behind the butterfly effect: that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might result in a tornado forming in Texas.

Here’s an unexpected connection: the explosion of a volcano in Indonesia in 1815 is believed to have indirectly inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein in Switzerland the following year.

The volcano was Tambora. The magnitude of its eruption in April 1815 is thought to be the largest in the last 2000 years. Krakatau (Krakatoa) in 1883 might be better known, and Mt St Helens was more recent and closer to home, but nothing in the historical records beats Tambora for kilograms of stuff extruded. It’s also the unfortunate champ for causing the most fatalities in the local area (more than 71,000, compared to under 37,000 for Krakatau).

Mt Tambora had been quiet until 1812, when the locals started observing rumbling and small ash clouds. Its first major eruption occurred on April 5, 1815, followed by a stronger one on April 10. Local inhabitants experienced fire, tsunamis, stones the size of walnuts falling from the sky, daytime darkness with visibility measured in inches, and whirlwinds that uprooted trees and lifted cattle into the air.

Ash was also a problem. Nearby homes collapsed under the weight of ash falling from the sky, and ships had to slog through several feet of it floating on the ocean’s surface.

In addition, Tambora spewed smaller, lighter particles and sulfur dioxide. These spread around the earth via the stratosphere in quantities massive enough to affect the climate worldwide by blocking a significant amount of incoming solar radiation for several months. That’s why 1816 came to be known as The Year Without a Summer.

Sunlight was blocked; global average temperatures dropped 3 degrees Celsius (about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Under gloomy skies, crops in North America and Europe suffered, farmers were distraught, food prices rose, and famine spread. Among the devastated crops were oats, which were used to feed horses. With this scarcity in “fuel,” transportation costs also rose. Epidemics of typhus spread through the British Isles.

Everyone was effected – even creative types.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont had elected to spend the summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Normally the summer there would be pleasant enough, but the incessant chilly, rainy conditions forced Mary and the others to spend much of their time indoors.

What to do? They played morbid games, told ghost stories – and being writers, they wrote! In a competition to see who could write the best horror story, Polidori came up with The Vampyre, which is seen as an influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Byron penned the poem “Darkness, which includes lines such as, “I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguish’d” and “Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day,….”

Eighteen-year-old Mary began writing the manuscript that would become Frankenstein. No surprise that stormy weather prevails throughout much of the story.

And while Frankenstein is indeed a story of horror, so too is the volcanic eruption that occurred months earlier and half a world away.

Sources Consulted

  • Evans, Robert. Blast from the Past. Smithsonian Magazine [available here]
  • Mersereau, Dennis. 15 Facts About ‘The Year Without a Summer.’ [available here]
  • Oppenheimer, Clive. Climatic, environmental and human consequences of the largest known historic eruption: Tambora volcano (Indonesia) 1815. Progress in Physical Geography. [available here]
  • Ritchie, Ian. How the year without a summer gave us dark masterpieces. The Guardian. [available here]
  • UCAR Center for Science Education. Mount Tambora and the Year Without a Summer. [available here]
  • Wikipedia. Mary Shelley [available here]

About Maps and GIS at UCR:

The UCR Library provides access to a wide variety of maps, atlases, aerial photos, and geographic data.

We hold historical, thematic and road maps, as well as atlases. Our United States Geological Survey (USGS) topographic maps come in various scales for the entire U.S. Geological maps can also be found online through the U.S. Geological Publications Warehouse or the California Geological Survey.

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) make maps come to life by storing, analyzing, and relating spatial and geographical information. To support GIS, we provide ArcGIS software on computers in the Orbach Science Library Map Room and Learning Commons computers, as well as Learning Commons computers in Rivera Library. We can help you identify, obtain, and organize data sets for your research – email us at dataconsult-lib@ucr.edu.