“The Earth is God’s pinball machine and each quake, tidal wave, flash flood and volcanic eruption is the result of a tilt that occurs when God, cheating, tries to win free games” ― Tom Robbins
In late 1808 A.D. a massive volcanic eruption that rated a “6” on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (the 1815 Mt. Tambora explosion was rated “7” and led to the infamous “Year without a Summer” in 1816) managed to go unnoticed and unremarked.
In the 1990’s climatologists and vulcanologists confirmed through Antarctic and Greenland ice cores and bristlecone pine tree ring data that sometime between 1808-1809, a colossal eruption had indeed occurred and contributed significantly to several years of global cooling.
In case you were wondering, other eruptions with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 6 include Huaynaputina (1600), Krakatoa (1883), Novarupta (1912), Pinatubo (1991), and Santa Maria (1902). And folks noticed these, mostly because (1) eruptions of that size are really loud, (2) the volume of ejected tephra (fragmented volcanic material) ejected is somewhere on the order of 10-100 cubic kilometers, and (3) the volcanic plume would have reached 20 kilometers high into the atmosphere.
That’s why it’s all the more puzzling that nobody is sure where this enormous volcanic eruption actually took place. According to the contemporary historical record, nothing happened worth writing home about. Somewhat less impressive eruptions were dutifully noted at Urzelina in the Azores and the Taal Volcano in the Philippines in 1808. Yet, no mention of a monumental eruption anywhere that changed the weather for a few years.
This has led vulcanologists to speculate that the volcano was likely somewhere between the South Pacific Island of Tonga and Indonesia, and this is based on the fortunate discovery of some puzzling indirect evidence uncovered by PhD student Alvaro Guevara-Murua and Dr. Caroline Williams of the University of Bristol. You see, climatologists and vulcanologists tend to want to know where stuff went down, so they went in search of what they assumed had to exist, that is, somebody who might have at least noticed a colossally-sized (actually the technical term) eruption or its after-effects. And they found some clues dropped by Francisco José de Caldas, Director of the Astronomical Observatory of Bogotá between 1805 and 1810. Caldas reported a “transparent cloud that obstructs the sun’s brilliance” in December 1808, and visible across Columbia. Hypothetically, this could have been a sulfuric acid aerosol resulting from a volcanic explosion somewhere west of Columbia. Physician Hipólito Unanue of Lima reported a similar phenomenon in December 1808, meaning that there was likely an aerosol veil wafting across the stratosphere for at least 2600 km. This would seem to suggest that the mystery volcano was somewhere in the South Western Pacific.
Given, the South Western Pacific is pretty sparsely populated in the grand scheme of things, and apart from the indigenous islanders on the many tiny land masses (who certainly had oral traditions regarding volcanic eruptions, but none that could be matched to the date in question), and the occasional European missionary, there wouldn’t have likely been a whole lot of available observers to such an extraordinary event.
This makes me wonder what other sort of cataclysmic events we’ve missed across the millennia, or reside only in our folkloric memory to be dismissed as fantastical musings of savages, rather than actual events that nobody in authority was around to see and record in the official record of human history. In this instance history didn’t notice, and almost two centuries later, science did, perhaps proving Uruguayan Journalist Eduardo Galeano’s observation that “History never really says goodbye. History says, “See you later.’”
Guevara-Murua, A., Williams, C. A., Hendy, E. J., Rust, A. C., and Cashman, K. V.: Observations of a stratospheric aerosol veil from a tropical volcanic eruption in December 1808: is this the Unknown ∼1809 eruption?, Clim. Past, 10, 1707-1722.