Climate Change Two Hundred Years Ago


At the beginning of August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US issued its authoritative ‘State of the Climate’ report for 2015, which revealed new records for increased global temperature, greater CO2 concentration, and rising sea levels. As George Monbiot put it in the Guardian, the climate crisis is ‘already here’.

Mount Tambora Volcano, Indonesia

Image Credit: NASA, International Space Station Science, 6/03/09

On April 10, 1815 the Tambora volcano produced the largest eruption in history. An estimated 150 cubic kilometres of tephra - exploded rock and ash - was produced, with ash from the eruption recognized at least 1,300km away to the northwest. While the April 10 eruption was catastrophic, historical records and geological analysis of eruption deposits indicate that the volcano had been active between 1812 and 1815. Enough ash was input into the atmosphere from the April 10 eruption to reduce incident sunlight on Earth's surface and cause global cooling, resulting in the 1816 "year without a summer". This detailed photograph depicts the summit caldera of the volcano. The huge caldera - six kilometres in diameter and 1,100 meters deep - formed when Tambora's estimated 4,000 meter-high peak was removed, and the magma chamber below emptied, during the April 10 eruption.

Two hundred years ago, the world was also experiencing a climate crisis, caused in large part by the huge eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora in 1815. The ‘Year without a Summer’, which followed in 1816, was exceptionally cold and wet, leading to incidences of famine, political unrest, and disease across the world.

The situation was dire enough in Britain that the sober Edinburgh Review reported in August 1816 that ‘at no former period of the history of this country, was so great and general a distress known to prevail, as that which has lately visited us’.

Although there were a few media reports of the Tambora eruption, no one at the time made the connection to the subsequent crisis. However, writers and artists of the period responded to what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called ‘this end of the World Weather’.

The summer of 1816 is also known as one of the most productive periods in the history of English literature, not least because it saw the conception of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as major works by her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron, composed during the time that they spent together near Geneva.

Scholars have noted the importance of the environmental context for this remarkable period of creativity. What has not been addressed is the seriousness with which these authors were collaborating to address searching questions about the relationship between human beings and their environments.

A mixture of terrible weather, the sublime Alpine landscapes that they visited, and their interest in science led them to think hard about the vulnerability of human communities living with uncontrollable natural forces, and the possibility of human extinction.

A key concern for Byron and the Shelleys was not global warming, but global cooling. Responding to contemporary geological theories, Percy Shelley argued that the glaciers around Mont Blanc were continually ‘augmenting’ and raised the possibility that ‘this globe which we inhabit will at some future period be changed into a mass of frost by the encroachments of the polar ice’.

His poem ‘Mont Blanc’ describes the glaciers that ‘creep / Like snakes that watch their prey’, a ‘flood of ruin’ that threatens human existence: ‘the race / Of man, flies far in dread’. Byron’s ‘Darkness’ imagines the dimming of the entire universe, so that ‘the icy earth / [Swings] blind and blackening in the moonless air’. In a chillingly apocalyptic vision, the growing cold and darkness leads to resource wars, ecosystem collapse, famine, and eventually the destruction of all life on Earth, leaving it ‘a lump of death’.

The extinction of the human species is also a key concern in Frankenstein and here again it is linked to global cooling. When they encounter each other on the Montanvert glacier, the Creature tells his creator, Victor Frankenstein, that ‘the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge’. The inhospitable landscape where no other being can survive is for the resilient Creature the safest home that he can find, far away from the humans who torment him.

It is entirely fitting that the novel begins and ends in the Arctic. After being responsible for the deaths of Victor’s family, the Creature leads him ‘to the everlasting ices of the north’ so that he will suffer further privations: ‘you will feel the misery of cold and frost, to which I am impassive’.

Victor eventually destroys his work on the Creature’s companion due to his fear that the two might procreate and supplant humanity: ‘a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror’. Frankenstein raises the spectre of a posthuman future in which a stronger species develops that is able to flourish on an icy globe.

How relevant are these writings to us now, two hundred years on, as we find ourselves living in what is sometimes called the Anthropocene: a period of profound human impacts on the planet? What they certainly don’t offer is simplistic moral solutions. Contrary to popular belief, Frankenstein is not a warning against technological experimentation. Nor does it endorse the idea that we should ‘love our monsters’ and therefore embrace an ecomodernist agenda that celebrates the capacity of modern technologies to fix the environment.

The concerns of Byron and the Shelleys might actually seem rather different to ours. After all, whereas they focus on the destructive agency of ice, we see it as a vulnerable victim of human activity.

However, in their 1816 texts we find the human species to be simultaneously central and marginal: on the one hand, the mind is shown to constitute reality through its heroic refusal to bow down before the elements; on the other, humanity is shown to be vulnerable to environmental forces that it cannot control.

This provides the connection to today where our impacts are enormous as a species and yet as individuals we may feel entirely powerless in the face of climate change. Furthermore, their emphasis on the power and agency of elemental forces offers a salutary reminder of the natural volatility of the earth’s systems, the limits of our capacity to predict or manipulate the climate, and the very transience of the human species.

Written by Dr David Higgins
Dr Higgins is Associate Professor in English Literature and AHRC Leadership Fellow at the University of Leeds. For more information about David's research visit: Romantic Climate blog

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