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Cover Story

Frankenstein’s Weather

Frankenstein, Shakespeare, and snow in July.

Mary Shelley and Shakespeare

“We will each write a ghost story,” the poet Lord Byron famously announced in 1816.

Byron, along with Mary and Percy Shelley, was spending the summer of 1816 in Switzerland, but the weather was the strangest anyone could remember. It was bitter cold and stormy, with freezing rain and lightning. There were even reports of snow in July.

The freakish weather drove them indoors, where the three of them made a pact to each write a ghost story. Mary Shelley proceeded to write Frankenstein, the most famous monster tale of all time—the creature forever associated with bizarre and gloomy weather.

What Shelley did not know is that the monstrous weather of 1816 was triggered by one of the greatest volcanic eruptions in recorded history—the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, says LAS English professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

In April of 1815—only a matter of weeks before the Battle of Waterloo—Mount Tambora erupted half a world away, ejecting 35 cubic miles of volcanic dust, sulfate gases, and rocks up to 25 miles into the atmosphere, Wood says. To put this in perspective, Mount Vesuvius ejected 6 cubic miles of debris in 79 A.D., while Mount St. Helens ejected 0.24 cubic miles of debris in 1980.

“Volcanologists describe the Mount Tambora eruption, in their terms, as ‘super-colossal,’” Wood points out. “It is the only eruption of that magnitude since human civilization emerged 10,000 years ago. And yet it has been little studied.”

At ground zero, the eruption killed 90,000 people in Indonesia. The cloud of volcanic ash that spread around the world affected the climate for three years, creating famine and chaos everywhere from India and China to Europe and New England.

“What is lacking in a lot of the current public debate over climate change is historical consciousness,” Wood says. “We need an historical dimension to understand the relationship between human societies and climate.”

That is why Wood has been studying the Tambora eruption from every angle—politics, agriculture, and even literature and painting. He is also working with University of Illinois atmospheric scientist Don Wuebbles to create a computer model tracking the spread of volcanic ash around the world following the Tambora eruption.

According to Wood, it is “something of a scandal” how little climate has been considered in the humanities over the years. He attributes this to an overcorrection in response to a philosophy known as climate determinism prevalent in the 18th century and even into the 19th century.

“Climate determinism argued that the characteristics of human populations are determined by their geography and environment—in particular, by climate,” Wood explains. “People believed, for instance, that those living in the tropics were lazy and more susceptible to tyranny because of the climate—the humidity. They also thought the superiority of northern Europeans lay in the temperate nature of their climate.

“Forms of environmental determinism are so obnoxious that people in the humanities have shied away from climate completely,” Wood adds. But all of that is beginning to change, as the climate controversy makes its way into the humanities, particularly at the U of I.

Just this past December, fellow U of I English professor Robert Markley was in England delivering a talk at Oxford University about conditions in England during the Little Ice Age. As if on cue, the heavens dumped 10 inches of snow on Oxford thanks to a classic Little Ice Age weather pattern.

“I was at a conference talking about the Little Ice Age and experiencing it at the same time,” he says.

volcano

Ten inches is a rarity in modern England, but William Shakespeare would have been quite familiar with frigid temperatures, for arctic air bore down on England with bone-chilling ferocity in the 17th century, says Markley. As Shakespeare once wrote, “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May / And summer’s lease has all too short a date.”

The Little Ice Age was not technically an Ice Age, but was a period extending from about the 1400s to the mid-19th century, when the average temperature dropped 1° Celsius, or 1.8° Fahrenheit. This may not sound like much, Markley points out, but the Little Ice Age—like all climate shifts—included many extreme years that brought frigid temperatures across Europe. The Thames River in London froze solid more than a dozen times during the 17th century, something that has not happened even once in well over 100 years.

“There are very few characters in all of Shakespeare who talk about being hot. They talk about being cold, they talk about the wind and the rain,” he says.

“The beautiful paintings of the Rembrandt era also reflect the Little Ice Age, showing people skating on the frozen canals of the Netherlands,” adds Stephen Marshak, U of I geologist and director of the School of Earth, Society, and Environment. “When was the last time you saw somebody skating on those canals? It doesn’t happen.”

Periods such as the Little Ice Age are reminders that climate extremes have cooled and heated the planet throughout many different periods of Earth’s long history. For instance, Marshak says, geological clues indicate that the entire Earth may have been completely frozen more than 650 million years ago, creating what is called “Snowball Earth.” More recently, the Medieval Warming Period was a time when temperatures were similar to or slightly above those of today. The hottest period is believed to be the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, 65 to 145 million years ago.

Despite the historical cycles of hot and cold, Marshak agrees with the conclusion that the current warming trend is human-induced. It’s an anomaly. In fact, Marshak says some researchers argue that, based on the timing of the Milankovitch cycle, the Earth’s present climate should be cooling, not warming. The Milankovich cycle relates periodic changes in the Earth’s orbit and tilt to the amount of solar heating that temperate latitudes receive over a year.

In agricultural societies, such as those during the Tambora eruption, climate change has had far-reaching consequences. According to Wood, when Tambora’s cloud of ash reached India, it disrupted the monsoons, leading to three failed harvests, followed by drought, floods, and famine. Scientists have now explicitly linked these conditions with the outbreak of a new strain of cholera, which appeared in Bengal in 1816 and eventually spread around the world, killing millions.

During the Tambora period of 1815 to 1818, the food shortage, combined with so many men returning from the Napoleonic Wars, created a perfect storm of chaos and unrest as people traveled in search of food. Wood has examined travel literature of the time, which shows that some tourists in Europe even mistook the mass movement of beggars for armies.

Like Wood, Markley does much of his climate research by looking at travel literature, for he says it was the best-selling form of writing before the 1800s. However, Americans in 1816 and 1817 didn’t have to travel to Europe to witness the bizarre weather. The bad weather came to them. In New England, weather disruptions caused by Mount Tambora resulted in the famed “Year without a Summer.”

“The Year without a Summer is the most fabled weather event of the 19th century, if not in all of American history,” Wood says. In 1816, New England farmers saw their shortest growing season ever with severe frosts in July. As a result, many farmers moved westward, and the relatively benign growing conditions in the Midwest gave birth to the region as a major agricultural producer.

Back in Europe, Switzerland was one of the areas hardest hit by the bizarre weather of 1816 and 1817; and that is precisely where Mary Shelley happened to find herself when she began writing Frankenstein. Wood says her time period demonstrates for us today that climate change can have worldwide consequences.

“In the Tambora period, you can see the correlation between climate stress and very negative social effects on governments and society,” he says. “We have a global example.”

According to Wood, the Tambora eruption and the current climate controversy both demonstrate the complex connection between humans and forces beyond our control, such as the weather.

Similarly, “Frankenstein is all about the limits of human control,” he says. “And it offers a lesson for today: Our attempts to be masters of the universe can sometimes have devastating consequences.”

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By Doug Peterson
Spring 2010