It certainly wasn’t the gunshot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. That is often described as “the shot heard round the world”, and in a sense it was. The non-literal sense, that is, that it kicked off a world war.
The atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was many, many times louder – though there have been many much bigger nuclear explosions since, mostly in tests by the USA or USSR.
It’s arguable that it changed the world even more than the Sarajevo assassination. It could equally be argued that without the earlier event the bomb would never have happened.
In so many ways we are still living in the world created by Gavrilo Princip’s trigger finger.
Things have consequences – chains of event mostly unforeseen.
But the loudest thing was almost certainly a natural occurrence, not any bang made by man.
It’s often said to have been the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa. The Indonesian island blew up in 1883, causing shock waves that were literally recorded around the world. The tsunami it unleased killed a reported 36,000 people. It’s been estimated at about 13,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb, and four times the biggest nuclear device ever detonated. It was a big bang.
But it wasn’t the biggest. And it didn’t have the most devastating consequences.
Just under 200 years ago – on April 10, 1815 – another island in the same Indonesian chain erupted.
The British statesman Stamford Raffles (famous later for founding London Zoo and the city of Singapore) heard it.
He reported: “The sky was overcast at noon-day with clouds of ashes. Showers of ashes covered the houses, the streets, and the fields to the depth of several inches. And amid this darkness explosions were heard at intervals, like the report of artillery or the noise of distant thunder.”
And he was over 700 miles away in Java.
The Tambora eruption killed 12,000 people immediately. But that was only the beginning.
It’s now known that it blew 160 cubic kilometres of rock and ash into the air. That’s more than six times the size of Krakatoa – and more than 1,000 times the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland that so disrupted air traffic in 2010.
The ash cloud released by Tambora didn’t just ground a few planes and make things dusty. It turned southern China’s summer to winter, wiping out the rice harvest and causing a massive famine.
By the time the weather returned to normal three years later, the economy of Yunnan province had switched from rice to poppies. Instead of feeding themselves directly, the farmers were now in the drugs trade. It was the start of China’s long association with opium.
Right across Europe and America 1816 was “the year without a summer”. Due, as no one at the time knew, to the Tambora eruption.
There were failed harvests and food riots. Famine from Ireland to Switzerland – whose closed-borders, “neutral” position in world affairs began then.
In India, the monsoon failed. The longest drought in the country’s history was eventually followed, in September 1816, by ruinous flooding. The devastation led in 1817 to the world’s worst cholera outbreak.
Genetic research now suggests that conditions in Bengal then enabled the mutation that led to the disease spreading around the world.
Among its further-flung results you could plot the great drive to western expansion in North America – and with it the near-annihilation of the Native Americans.
In Europe, cholera brought death and misery on a grand scale, especially in the big cities. In London it led eventually to the development of modern sewers and the building of the Thames embankments. And from that, you could argue, followed the creation of the underground railway.
A less obvious effect of Tambora’s disruption of global weather patterns occurred in the Arctic. The shifting of ocean currents melted the ice off western Canada, leading to the fabled hunt for the North-West Passage. A hunt doomed to failure because by 1818 the sea had re-frozen.
Climate-change deniers sometimes point to that temporary thaw as reason not to worry now about the melting ice-caps. “These things happen,” they say.
They might add that what humans foul up, nature can fix – or make worse.
But what is happening to the ice-cover now is on an altogether different scale from the 1816 thaw, on a different timespan, and for a different reason.
I’ve taken some of the details in this article from a book, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood. Professor Wood concludes: “If a three-year climate change event in the early 1800s was capable of such destruction, then the future impacts of multi-decadal climate change must be truly off the charts.”
No one can say we haven’t been warned.
A recent cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winner Matt Davies in New York’s Newsday refers to a different volcanic eruption. A much smaller one than Tambora, longer ago, but still much better known.
“Employing sophisticated X-ray scanning technology,” it says, “scientists decipher the ancient burnt scrolls of Pompeii.” And the scrolls say: “The volcano is potentially a threat, but taking evasive action might harm the economy.”