World's deadliest volcano rumbles again

2011-09-19 16:51

Mount Tambora - Bold farmers in Indonesia routinely ignore orders to evacuate the slopes of live volcanoes, but those living on Tambora took no chances when history's deadliest mountain rumbled ominously this month.

Villagers like Hasanuddin Sanusi have heard since they were young how the mountain they call home once blew apart in the largest eruption ever recorded - an 1815 event widely forgotten outside their region - killing 90 000 people and blackening skies on the other side of the globe.

So, the 45-year-old farmer didn't wait to hear what experts had to say when Mount Tambora started being rocked by a steady stream of quakes. He grabbed his wife and four young children, packed his belongings and raced down its quivering slopes.

"It was like a horror story, growing up," said Hasanuddin, who joined hundreds of others in refusing to return to their mountainside villages for several days despite assurances they were safe.

"A dragon sleeping inside the crater, that's what we thought. If we made him angry - were disrespectful to nature, say - he'd wake up spitting flames, destroying all of mankind."

The April 1815 eruption of Tambora left a crater 11km wide and 1km deep, spewing an estimated 400 million tons of sulphuric gases into the atmosphere and leading to "the year without summer" in the US and Europe.

It was 10 times more powerful than Indonesia's much better-known Krakatoa blast of 1883 - history's second deadliest. But it doesn't share the same international renown, because the only way news spread across the oceans at the time was by slowboat, said Tambora researcher Indyo Pratomo.

In contrast, Krakatoa's eruption occurred just as the telegraph became popular, turning it into the first truly global news event.

Feeling the earth move

The reluctance of Hasanuddin and others to return to villages less than 10km from Tambora's crater sounds like simple good sense. But it runs contrary to common practice in the sprawling nation of 240 million - home to more volcanoes than any other in the world.

Even as Merapi, Kelut and other famously active mountains shoot out towering pillars of hot ash, farmers cling to their fertile slopes, leaving only when soldiers load them into trucks at gunpoint. They return before it's safe to check on their livestock and crops.

Tambora is different.

People here are jittery because of the mountain's history - and they're not used to feeling the earth move so violently beneath their feet. Aside from a few minor bursts in steam in the 1960s, the mountain has been quiet for much of the last 200 years.

Gede Suantika of the government's Centre for Volcanology said activity first picked up in April, with the volcanic quakes jumping from less than five a month to more than 200.

"It also started spewing ash and smoke into the air, sometimes as high as 1 400m," he said. "That's something I've never seen it do before."

Authorities raised the alert to the second-highest level two weeks ago, but said only villagers within 3km from the crater needed to evacuate.

That didn't stop hundreds of men, women and children living well outside the danger zone from packing their clothes, jewellery and important documents and heading to the homes of family and friends elsewhere on Sumbawa island.

Fears of 1815

"We've urged them to go back to harvest their crops, get their kids back in school, but we're having a hard time," said Syaifullah, a community chief in Pekat, at the foot of the 2 700m mountain.

"The new alert awakened fears about 1815."

Most people finally trickled back to their homes by Monday.

Little was known about Tambora's global impact until the 1980s, when Greenland ice core samples - which can be read much like tree rings - revealed an astonishing concentration of sulphur at the layer dating back to 1816, said geologist Jelle de Boer, co-author of Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruption.

Gases had combined with water vapour to form fine droplets of acid that remained for years in the atmosphere, circling the earth and reflecting some of the solar radiation back into space.

Temperatures worldwide plummeted, causing crops to fail and leading to massive starvation.

Farmers on the northeastern coast of the US reported snow well into July.

In France, grape harvests were decimated. Daniel Lawton of the wine brokerage Tastet-Lawton said a note in his company's files remarks that 1816 was a "detestable year" and yielded only a quarter of the crop planted.

Pompeii of the East

Soon after the ice core findings, scientists started studying Tambora in earnest.

In 2004, Icelandic vulcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson and a team of American and Indonesian researchers uncovered remnants of a village in a gully on Tambora's flank that had been pulverized in the fast-moving pyroclastic flow.

Sigurdsson heralded it as a "Pompeii of the East," and local researcher Made Geria says archaeologists have expanded the dig every year since then.

No one expects a repeat of 1815 just yet - it takes much more than 200 years for that type of huge pressure to build up again, said de Boer, who teaches at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

But that's little consolation for those confronted with the mountain's new burst of activity.

Like Hasanuddin, teenager Malik Mahmud has heard the stories.

"Tens of thousands of people, animals and rice fields disappeared," the 15-year-old said, adding that a veil of ash blocked out the sun for years.

"There was no life here," he said quietly from the village of Doropeti, 15km from the crater. "I know that from my parents."

  • ErrolNdevu - 2011-09-19 17:42

    One volcanic erution leaves more co2 in the atmosphere than mankind have for the last 200 years. Global warming is bulls@#^.

      abg100 - 2011-09-19 17:54

      You need to go back to school fool!

      Ozymandios - 2011-09-19 18:15

      Errol I back you 101%. That's true but we sure as hell can't keep making that statement, because it is just too much for mankind to swallow now.He is being conned so much in the recent decades on so many things that he just won't be able to stomach being told again how "dof" and gullable he is, to facts that are scientifically true and have been proven beyond any measure. No money in the truth and heck we can't take back Al Gore's Nobel Prize now, can we???????

      Vuzi - 2011-09-19 18:25

      So what ?

      CPII - 2011-09-19 18:57

      Yup. S'tru. Mankind will run out of fossil fuel before we succumb to global warming of our own doing.

      tmaneveld - 2011-09-19 19:26're an idiot!

      Lanfear - 2011-09-20 08:38

      In the end, what does it *matter* whether we are responsible or not? We are definitely contributing to climate change. Please, "globabl warming" as such a last millenium way of putting it! The climate IS changing, there is no argument. Are we solely responsible for it? No, probably not. Are we polluting our planet? Definitely. So what is the point really of people going on about how humanity is not solely responsible for climate change? That we should stop caring about our environment? That we shouldn't do things like recycle, protect fragile environments, care about pollution and wanton destruction? What a message to send to the next generation.

      barkers - 2011-09-20 13:45

      @ErrolNdevu...100% correct!!

  • Stir Monger - 2011-09-19 18:26

    Global warming is happening. What does it matter how. We are all in the SH one T if we dont learn how to live with it or at least how our children can deal with it. It's too late to stop now. Nature will probably discard mankind as a failed experiment & move on.

  • teresa scott - 2011-09-19 20:33

    Global warming is not the best term to use. climate change is better. Open your eyes, the weather has changed over the last ten years and I am talking about what I have seen not read. The full effect has not kicked in yet but keep claiming inocence and in the years to come watch your home drown in a flood that wouldnt have happened before and six months later fight desperately to find food in the famine caused by drought in the same area. Then shout that it wasnt our fault, 95% of scientific studies say it is. Why do you cling to the 5%?

  • Die hele waarheid - 2011-09-19 22:02

    Thats why they use people n countries like this for labour they just keep them there and then our little ANC comrades think they are still unlucky

  • loftycrane - 2011-09-20 09:01

    Thanks for the article - I thought Krakatoa was the largest eruption.

  • pages:
  • 1