Saturday, October 06, 2007

Tambora, Frankenstein, and Darkness

One of the things I've been most impressed with in my new department is the number and quality of invited speakers we have. Almost every week we have a new person visit for two days, culminating in at least one talk (sometimes 2 and on rare occasions more), and plenty of time to visit.

The talks this week were especially interesting. I am still undecided about whether or not I want to blog about the main topics the speaker covered, but one thing has been stuck in my head and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

The first lecture dealt a great deal with paleoclimate, and in particular the effect that the solid earth has on climate. When I say solid earth I mean tectonic processes, as opposed to things like weathering rates, space dust clouds, Milankivic cycles, and the like. As an example, the speaker talked about the effects of the Mount Tambora eruptions in April of 1815. It was a massive eruption of a stratovolcano, which most likely would have injected enormous amounts of SO2 into the stratosphere. ****Interesting aside, I had always assumed it was the ash from volcanoes that affected weather, turns out the SO2 has a much longer residence time in the stratoshpere and ends up significantly increasing the earth's albedo for much longer.**** Tombora led to a reduction in average global temperature by ~3° C, and resulted in 1816 being referred to as "the year without a summer." The cold of 1816 led to all kinds of distasters, crops failures and mass starvation in particular. ****Another interesting aside, the effect of enormous volcanic eruptions is similar to what we might expect from a nuclear winter.****

That same summer, a 19 year old Mary Shelley (among others) was visiting Lord Byron in Switzerland. The weather was so miserable that most of the normal summery outdoor activities had to be put on hold. Shelley took to a challenge from Lord Byron to write a scary story, allegedly to fit the mood of the weather. What she produced, of course, is one of the most memorable and famous stories of all time, Frankenstein. First I need to get past the fact that at 19 I spent most of a summer cataloging my CD collection and deciding what the best mix tape for heading back to college would be (almost as productive as Shelley). Frankenstein is full of weather related imagery, not the least of which is the fact that it is set in part in the Arctic. That weather was the direct result of geologic phenomena, which is in itself interesting. But what I am even more interested in is the potential of literature (and art in general) to provide insight into how humans will respond to some of these "extreme" geologic events.

Byron himself was also effected by the terrible weather, and I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say it is obvious in the first few lines of his poem Darkness

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went -and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chilled into a selfish prayer for light;

Uplifting, I know, like a Morrissey song. The poem goes on to even mention volcanoes! The influence on weather on art and literature was the subject of an NPR story you can listen to here. For now, I have decided to try to collect as many artistic and literary references to geologic phenomena as possible. Loose Baggy Monster informs me that many authors dealt heavily with emerging geologic theories back in the day, now I just have to find them! Any ideas, please email or comment.


jrepka said...

SO2 has a short residence time in the troposphere but once it reaches the stratosphere, as it can in a large Plinean eruption, it has a mean life of a year. It's ability to reflect light can be seen in the clouds on Venus, which have an albedo of 0.7-0.8.

I believe that one of the classic examples of art related to a geologic event is the eerie red-orange sky in Edvard Munch's "The Scream" (1893) which is said to have been inspired by the long-lasting effects of Krakatoa (1883) on the atmosphere.

Jacob said...

There's actually a recent (and fairly comprehensive) study that's been done on many famous sunset paintings and volcanic eruptions. There's an article about it in the Guardian, and the paper was published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

The future research is really intriguing - use known geological events to "calibrate" your artwork to see if the same effect can be seen with pollution of the industrial revolution.

I wonder where they got the idea for this. Some grad student probably needed to justify all the time he'd been spending with the cute tour guide down at the museum...

John Van Hoesen said...

There is also a 'classic' study on this published in 1970:

Neuberger, Hans, 1970, Climate in Art, Weather, 25:46-56.


Thermochronic said...

Thank you for the suggestions/comments, I will hope to compile these in the not to distant future.