Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Year Without a Summer

Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland - in eruption this year

On 11 April 1815 the British ship Benares was in port at Makassar in the southern Celebes, when the officers and crew heard a growing fusillade of loud cannon fire. She sailed south to investigate.

It was the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and unbeknown to those in the East Indies, Napoleon had been restored to power in France a few weeks earlier for what would be known as the Hundred Days.

The Benares could find nothing, and returned to port, but on 19 April the explosions resumed with such intensity that they shook houses and ships.

The captain of the Benares again sailed south, under a sky dark with ash, and with cinders raining down onto the deck of his ship.

On the northern tip of the island of Sumbawa (two islands to the east of Bali) stood the volcano Mount Tambora, and it had erupted.

Once the eruption was over, Mount Tambora was fully 1,300 metres shorter than it had been previously.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles - Lieutenant Governor of Java - wrote:
The area over which tremulous noises and other volcanic effects extended was one thousand English miles [ie 1,600 kilometres] in circumference, including the whole of the Molucca Islands, Java, a considerable portion of Celebes, Sumatra, and Borneo. ... Violent whirlwinds carried men, horses, cattle, and whatever came within their influence, into the air.
Tens of thousands died, both from the blast itself and from famine caused by the rain of ash which buried crops.

The discharge from the Mount Tambora eruption was far greater than that from Krakatoa in 1883, and over one hundred times greater than that from the Mount St Helens eruption of 1980. The Mount Tambora eruption remains the most powerful in recorded history.

Following the eruption of Tambora, volcanic dust at high altitudes provided a shield from solar radiation, and led to much lower surface temperatures around the globe.

The following year, 1816, has been known ever since as "the year without a summer". In the bitter cold, crops failed and many died in Europe and the Americas. Percy Shelley entertained house guests in Geneva, and the weather remained so bitter that they could not go out. To amuse them Mary Shelley composed her masterpiece "Frankenstein" - the first work of science fiction.

This year we have seen the eruption of the Iceland volcano with the almost unpronounceable name Eyjafjallajökull. Ash clouds from the eruption have affected air travel, and they have no doubt prevented some of the sun's warmth reaching the Earth - which should reduce global warming for a time.

Those who want to make a killing from the climate crisis have been spruiking a geoengineering solution - mimicking the action of volcanoes by injecting millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.

This scary option has been identified as having many dangers - including interference with major weather patterns such as the Indian monsoon. It would also mean we would not see a blue sky during the years when these aerosols linger in the atmosphere.

Playing around with this expensive and risky option is one way to avoid taking real action to attenuate carbon emissions and live sustainably.

This year Victoria's Brumby government was the sole sponsor of an invitation-only conference of geoengineers and venture capitalists in California to discuss this Frankenstein solution to the climate crisis.

A further "debriefing" from the conference is planned in Melbourne shortly.
The Victorian government already has a shameful dirty brown coal legacy: when Hazelwood (the developed world's dirtiest power station) was due to close in 2005, the government extended its life to 2031. Spending money on geoengineering strategies takes us further backwards: it is not only dangerous, it leads Victoria away from a carbon-free, sustainable future.

There are enough natural disasters in the world without making our own.

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