By K. M. Lockwood @lockwoodwriter

 Most children are fascinated by volcanoes. They are huge and hot and noisy. They can spew out brightly coloured lava and an eruption is full of mindless violence and spectacle . . .

On this day in 1815, Mount Tambora exploded at the climax of its eruption in present-day Indonesia. The sound of it reached Sumatra - more than 2,600 km (1,600 miles)away. Around a third of the huge volcano was reduced to rubble and ash - estimated at 1,220 metres (4,000 ft). Huge rafts of pumice floated in the sea - some 5km (3.1 miles) across. Overall, due to tsunamis, lava flows and starvation probably 71,000 people died in the region.

But that wasn't all.

The poisonous gases and ash thrown up into the atmosphere affected the world climate - causing a Volcanic Winter. The year following, 1816, was known as The Year Without A Summer. You can probably imagine what that meant for agriculture. There were outbreaks of disease, and people suffered the worst famine of the 19th century.

Chichester Canal, 1828 J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not absolutely all the fall-out was bad. Tephra (the bits thrown into the air) created astonishing sunsets for years afterwards.

The incessant rain forced Percy Bysshe Shelly, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori and Claire Clairmont to entertain each other in the Villa Diodati, Switzerland in June. The gloom led them to the darker sides of their imagination: Dr Polidori created The Vampyre an inspiration for Bram Stoker's later Dracula, Lord Byron wrote the poem Darkness - and eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley began work on Frankenstein, arguably one of the most influential novels ever written.

Frontispiece to Frankenstein 1831 By Theodore Von Holst (1810-1844) (Tate Britain. Private collection, Bath.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although Mount Tambora 1815 was the largest known eruption in human history, it is far from the only one. Vesuvius in AD79 which buried Pompeii and Herculaneum is fairly well-known due to the eye-witness accounts in the letters of seventeen-year-old Pliny the Younger. Monserrat, Mount St Helens and Pinatubo happened in living memory. The records we have are full of drama and incident. Did you know that in the Mount Pelée eruption of 1902 in Martinique, the only survivor in the city was the man in the condemned cell? (He was pardoned afterwards.)

Many writers such as Jules Verne in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Caroline Lawrence in The Roman Mysteries Book 2: The Secrets of Vesuvius and Frances Hardinge in Gullstruck Island have used volcanoes. How about you?

 'Sunset and afterglow,'  sketches by William Ascroft, London, England. All made in the aftermath of Krakatoa 1883 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Some suggestions for your own work

You do dystopia? In Iceland The Skaftáreldar (fires of Skaftá) in 1783-84 killed around a third of the population one way or another. Could the aftermath of an eruption bring extra stress to your characters - show up their true selves?

Contemporary writers - what about the disruption of flights caused by the eruption under the glacier Eyjafjallajökull? Who might be stuck together in such an event?

Fancy something more hopeful? Childhood visits to volcanic La Gomera in the Canary Islands inspired Kiran Millwood Hargrave to write The Girl of Ink and Stars. Could the fascinating colonisation by plants and animals of Surtsey (which only surfaced on 14 November 1963) inspire you?

More of a comedy writer? How about tiny volcanic Graham Island which rose near Sicily in 1831 - leading to some pretty ridiculous arguments over who owned it - and then sank? (Terry Pratchett created Leshp Island in Jingo to cause similar goings-on.)

Even you picture-book creators might have some fun with kitchen science involving vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. Not to mention enough metaphors and similes for anyone.

Initial image:  Merapi volcano, eruption at night by Raden Saleh (1811–1880)


  1. Brilliant! One of the novels in my drawer is called Volcano Child, about a boy who lives in the shadow of a smoking volcano. He's digging a hole in the hope of tunnelling to the other side of the world in London to fetch his mother who has gone there to work as a maid.


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