The eruption of Iceland’s EyjafjallajÃ¶kull which has produced major disruptions in European air traffic demonstrates effectively the point that the limits of observational potential of the human lifetime and the very limited store of accumulated human knowledge leave plenty of room for the natural world to surprise us.
In 1982, Mount Galunggung (VEI 4) in West Java, Indonesia, almost shot down a British Airways 747 cruising at 37,000 feet from Kuala Lumpur to Perth through its ash cloud. The plane’s four engines died, it glided out of the ash down to 13,000 feet, where Engine No. 4 was restarted, then the others, and an emergency landing at Jakarta saved 248 passengers and a crew of 15.
That was a spectacular wake-up call, but that same year a volcano 10 times more powerful, El ChichÃ³n (VEI 5) on Mexico’s YucatÃ¡n peninsula, would usher in the return of stratospheric calamity. It punched so much sulfurous gas into the stratosphere that airlines world-wide were flying through acid mists.
Except for the windows pilots look ahead through, airplane windows are made out of plastic. Sulfuric acid eats plastic. You can see little reflective stars in them. It’s called “star crazing.” After El ChichÃ³n, airlines found that windows were crazing up in months instead of yearsâ€”especially on routes that flew over the poles through the stratosphere where the acid cloud hung on and on, seemingly defying gravity. Every flight from New York to Tokyo, for example, went through it. Repolishing the windows cost tens of millions. …
In the summer following Tambora’s 1815 eruption, crop failures dotted the northern hemisphereâ€”rice failed in parts of China, wheat and corn in Europe, potatoes in Ireland (where it rained nonstop for eight weeks and triggered a typhus epidemic that killed 65,000 and spread to England and Europe). At Lake Geneva in Switzerland, vacationers from England sat out gloomy June storms reading ghost stories and composing their own. Lord Byron wrote a narrative poem, “Darkness,” in which there was no sun, “no day.” His personal physician, Dr. John Polidori, wrote “The Vampyre,” and Mary Shelley began “Frankenstein.” Famine spread across Switzerland. Food riots and insurrections swept France, which had already been caught up in the chaos following Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo. …
In New England, 1816 was called “the year without a summer” because there were crop-killing frosts every month, including the normally frost-free months of summer, across the region. It snowed in Virginia in June and again on the Fourth of July. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson, the retired president, had such a poor corn harvest that he had to borrow $1,000 to make up for lost income. In New Haven, Conn., the last frost of spring was on June 11, and the first frost of autumn on Aug. 22â€”shortening the normal growing season by 55 days. Corn, the staple crop of New England, couldn’t mature under such conditions. Crop failures were widespread. In Connecticut, three-quarters of the state’s corn crop was too unripe, soft or moldy to make corn meal.
While New Englanders faced food shortages and higher prices, they did not experience famine. But the hardship was a tipping point that helped propel Yankee farmers off the land. In their elegant 1983 book, “Volcano Weather: The Story of the Year Without a Summer,” Woods Hole oceanographer Henry Stommel and his wife, Elizabeth, wrote: “The summer of 1816 marked the point at which many New England farmers who had weighed the advantages of going west made up their minds to do so.”
The great migration westward had already begun, but Tambora gave it a boost. The year without a summer, for example, helped convince the New York State legislature to support a proposed canal from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, which would help farmers along it market their produce. Funds were authorized in April 1817, and construction began on the Fourth of July. The Erie Canal, built without federal money, opened in 1825. The federal government at the time was preoccupied with finding a way west that started closer to the capital; that is, building an interstate road threading through the mountains from Cumberland, Md., to Wheeling, then in the state of Virginia on the Ohio River. This so-called National Road, built on a foundation of stones, opened in 1818.
Access to the Ohio Valley and beyond through the Erie Canal and the National Road set the stage for the transformation of the Midwest from forests to farms that would last through the 19th century and well into the 20th.
The real effects of volcanic eruptions certainly put the supposititious hazards of AGW into perspective, don’t they?