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Mount Tambora Eruption Hardly Known


Indonesia was struck by massive earthquake and volcanic eruption this past week. The citizens took it in stride. They're used to such events. But there are a few facts about volcanoes that even Indonesians don't know.

NPR's Michael Sullivan has this Reporter's Notebook.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Indonesia has more active volcanoes than any place in the world. And I've been getting to know a few of them over the last couple of years. I've climbed on Krakatau in the Sunda Strait, the fast-growing son of the volcano that blew with a bang in the 1883.

Last year, I watched Indonesian officials evacuate thousands from the slopes of Mount Merapi in Central Java shortly before it blew. But until a few months ago, I was completely ignorant of the mother of all recorded eruptions, Mount Tambora in 1815. And when I went to the island of Sumbawa to find out more, I discovered many who live there in the volcano's shadow don't know much about it either.

RUFSIANA(ph) (Coffee Plantation Worker, Sumbawa Island): (Bahasa spoken)

SULLIVAN: This woman, Rufsiana, works at a coffee plantation and says she doesn't know anything about the mountain or the story. When Mount Tambora did blow, it killed a hundred thousand people in Indonesia and led indirectly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands more a half a world away in Europe during what came to be known as the year without summer.

Dr. HARALDUR SIGURDSSON (Professor of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island): It's rather strange, isn't it, that it's not a famous volcano.

SULLIVAN: That's University of Rhode Island volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson. He's been making regular trips to Tambora for decades.

Dr. SIGURDSSON: This is the volcano that has caused most destruction on earth. The greatest death toll of any eruption on the earth, the greatest climate impact on the earth.

SULLIVAN: In this case, global cooling caused by the enormous amount of gas from the eruption that reduced solar radiation reaching the earth. And yet, Tambora remains the Rodney Dangerfield of volcanic eruptions.

Sigurdsson blames the media for the lack thereof.

Dr. SIGURDSSON: For example, the Krakatau eruption in 1883 occurred the week after the telegraph was implemented. So Krakatau became the biggest news story. When Tambora erupted there was no media coverage. There was no communication system except writing a letter that would arrive in London or New York six weeks later at the best.

SULLIVAN: Sigurdsson doesn't seem bothered by the lack of attention still. In fact, he seems pretty content working here in a sort of splendid isolation. He's most recent big find what he calls the Pompeii of the East, the lost kingdom of Tambora, preserved by the volcano's searing heat.

He hopes to do more work on it next year.

Dr. SIGURDSSON: Well, we've got lots of time. It's taken 300 years to excavate Pompeii, and it's still not done so we're in no hurry here either. We've got to leave something to be done by our grandchildren as well so as to keep them busy.

SIMON: NPR's Michael Sullivan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.