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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

SMLI Book Report: Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

In our last Book Report, we delved into The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, this time we turn our attention to the volcanism that continues to shape our precious blue planet. Without volcanoes, our world would be very different. From the outgassing of greenhouse gasses to the minerals within lava, which makes volcanic soil so rich, humans and life itself are inescapably linked to these dangerous mountains of fire.

First published in 2015 by Gillen D'Arcy Wood, this book provides and easy-reading, yet in depth look at the most devastating eruption in recorded human history and how it lead to the "Year without a summer" of 1816, how the eruption created a three-year climate change regime, how that initiated the first worldwide cholera pandemic, expanded opium markets in China, and plunged the United States into its first economic depression. He even links the eruption to Thomas Jefferson and how the eruption would lead to his descendants unable to call Monticello, home.

From Princeton University Press' website: Here, Gillen D’Arcy Wood traces Tambora’s global and historical reach... Bringing the history of this planetary emergency to life, Tambora sheds light on the fragile interdependence of climate and human societies to offer a cautionary tale about the potential tragic impacts of drastic climate change in our own century.

I found this book a fascinating look at how a volcanic eruption 10,000 miles from Manhasset shaped the world at large and the literary minds of the time. Mary and Percy Shelley were living in Geneva, Switzerland when the Pompeii of the East erupted, forever changing their worlds. Rather than the bucolic setting of the Swiss alps during the summer of 1816, the two of them find themselves not in the beauty of the alps, but rather the wording that would eventually find itself into her work, describes part of their time there: "amidst a violent storm of wind and rain" (from Frankenstein). This volcanic-eruption induced weather would also spread far across the globe from just south of the Equator to North America, where snow would fall across much of the Northeast on June 6, 1816, as far south as the Vermont/ Massachusetts border! Wood also delves into how this eruption changed parts of China from a agricultural farming area to one that grew opium poppies because the money that was able to be made from opium versus growing vegetables.

From the red, volcanic skies seen and painted around the world to the famine, ruin, and death that Tambora would unleash upon the world, Wood presents a plethora of information that even a casual volcano enthusiast will enjoy without being overwhelmed with jargon. With chapter titles such as "This End of the World Weather", The Seven Sorrows of Yunnan, Ice Tsunami in the Alps and The Other Irish Famine, Gillen D'Arcy Wood has created an outstanding and informative read with chapters focusing on aspects of a large volcanic eruption that one might not think of. While this might be an academic book, this book is one that can be shared with any fan of science and one that is highly recommended!

If I've not convinced you to read this, this is praise for the book from around the world.

"Wood broadens our understanding beyond the 'year without a summer' cliché. . . . Wood's command of the scientific literature is impressive, and more than matched by his knowledge of world history during this horrific episode of catastrophic global climate change. With the mass of information he has assimilated, he skillfully weaves a tale full of human and cultural interest."

—Ted Nield, Nature

"Gillen D'Arcy Wood tells this story with skill and convincing research in Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, bringing together science, historic records and anecdotes from 200 years ago. . . . Wood delivers an intriguing anecdote of historical science, describing how humans are oblivious to the links to nature all around us."

—Matthew Scott, South China Morning Post

"Gillen D'Arcy Wood's Tambora takes us on a fascinating journey through the world of 1815-17, when particles from the greatest volcanic eruption since the Ice Age lingered high in the atmosphere. This meticulously researched and beautifully written book ventures far beyond tales of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein to document an apocalyptic global catastrophe that affected millions of people living as far afield as the Arctic and North America. Wood has crafted a powerful, definitive, and thought-provoking narrative."

—Brian Fagan, author of The Attacking Ocean

"Stimulating and engaging, Tambora provides an excellent overview of the worldwide repercussions that followed the eruption of a single tropical volcano. Weaving together an abundance of newly gathered historical information, Wood emphasizes humanity's disquieting vulnerability to natural events. This book represents a marvelous piece of work."

—Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, coauthor of Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions

And if you want to know more about Tambora, please check out the website of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History Global Volcanism Program at or the article from Smithsonian Magazine. Both are fascinating in their own rights!

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1 Comment

Billi Jean
Billi Jean
May 25, 2023

Thanks for the book review. This topic is interesting for me. Because I am personal statement writers for residency and I work in one well-known online service. Our team of experienced writers and editors provide services for writing educational content of any complexity. I constantly strive to improve my skills and level. That's why I try to read such books. I find it increases my efficiency and develops my own style.

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