Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tambora Project reconstructs past climate cataclysm with eye toward future

Tambora Project reconstructs past climate cataclysm with eye toward future

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In 1815 Earth experienced an event worthy of today’s most extreme disaster movies, the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia. The April eruption turned the whole mountain into what one observer characterized as a “flowing mass of liquid fire.” Ten thousand people were killed directly by the eruption, and another 90,000 people in the region died from starvation or ingesting water poisoned by volcanic material.

The consequences of the enormous eruption were felt around the world, too, because it released into the atmosphere a weather-altering cloud of sulfate gas the size of Texas and Illinois combined. In India the monsoons were disrupted, creating conditions that gave rise to a new, epidemic form of cholera that would eventually cross the globe, killing millions. Crop failure and famine crippled regions from China to Western Europe, Canada and New England, Food riots sprung up, environmental refugees swarmed across borders, while governments everywhere feared popular rebellion in what became known as “The Year Without a Summer.”

Perhaps Hollywood has been slow to pick up on this story because the true extent of the worldwide climate disruption involved has come to light only in recent years, as scientists have gathered information through the study of glacial ice cores and tree rings. A group of faculty members at the U of I has picked it up, though, with an eye toward what it might mean for people living today. According to professor of English Gillen Wood and collaborators from the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, the Tambora eruption provides an historical case study for the human impacts of rapid climate change. They are collaborating on the Tambora Project, which reconstructs the social, environmental and economic impacts of the eruption on a global scale.

One of the principal components of the Tambora Project is a sophisticated computer model simulation now being developed by Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Don Wuebbles and his students. The model will fill gaps in the historical record of the global climatological impacts of Tambora, and be used to create detailed time-lapse visualizations that enable us to see the dramatic effects of the eruption, including the dispersal of weather-altering aerosols, and changes in temperature and precipitation.

Another component of the Tambora Project is a risk estimate of the economic devastation that would result from a climate change event equivalent to the Tambora eruption today.

The Tambora team also plans a video documentary that will retrace Tambora’s volcanic cloud through the regions most impacted: Indonesia, China, Western Europe and New England. The goal of the documentary is both to reconstruct the global climate shock of 1815-1818, and to understand how governments in these regions are prepared, or not, for the climate crises of the 21st century.

Gillen Wood’s book, The Tambora Revolution: How Climate Change Changed the World, 1815-18, written for the general reader, will reconstruct the immediate impacts of the Tambora eruption from a global perspective and at the same time tell the story of the Tambora Project itself.

On Thursday, April 1st, Wood will give the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Humanities Lecture, “Climate Denial and the Philosopher King of Java.” In his lecture, Wood will introduce the Tambora Project, as well as make the case for humanists to become more engaged with the climate change issue. The Humanities Lecture will begin at 4:30 p.m. and take place in the Knight Auditorium at the Spurlock Museum, 600 South Gregory Street, Urbana.

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