SDSU scientist explains how environmental forces fabricated Frankenstein and other macabre creations
Imagine a world where there is dust in the air, temperatures are below freezing, and the sky is the color of fire. This is not a horror movie. This is a realistic depiction of the aftermath of a massive volcanic eruption.
As explained in jessica whitesideThese eruptions have inspired works of literature and art, from “Frankenstein” to “The Scream,” which reflect the inextricable bond between humans and the environment, said San Diego State University’s College of Earth and Environmental Sciences dean. It may have even influenced his work.
A volcanic eruption begins at a high temperature as scorching magma flows through the Earth’s belly, and the volcano spews steaming gases and other materials. In the surrounding area, the explosion could kill life, start wildfires, and cause even larger eruptions that could lead to long-term global warming.
But these eruptions also have a cold side.
“When volcanoes erupt, they emit carbon dioxide and methane, two heat-trapping gases that are also of concern in our current atmosphere,” Whiteside said. “But it also exhales sulfur aerosols, which are the opposite of heat-trapping gases.”
After reaching the troposphere, these sulfur compounds mix with water vapor to form sulfuric acid droplets. The sulfuric acid droplets block sunlight, reflecting it back into space and causing a cooling period in the years following the eruption.
When Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, it threw up enough debris to cover an area the size of New York state with 650 feet of dust.
“Tambora is the most powerful volcanic eruption on record for human civilization,” Whiteside said. “The amount of energy produced would be three times as much as detonating all the world’s nuclear weapons at once.”
Because Tambora is located in a tropical region at low latitudes, winds rapidly blew away vast amounts of volcanic debris from both hemispheres, blocking sunlight and causing temperatures to plummet around the world.
Whiteside said, “In the two years since Tambora, the world has been plunged into a cold wave where agriculture has failed and epidemics have occurred.”
From this dark volcanic winter, a monster was born.
“‘Frankenstein’ was inspired by the climatic conditions of the time,” Whiteside said. “Mary Shelley wrote this novel to express the human anxiety of dealing with frigid temperatures and the dim light from the faint sun.”
All the destruction produced by such a massive volcanic eruption also creates a strangely beautiful effect.
“Sulfur aerosols are bad for agriculture, but they cause beautiful sunsets because they cause chemical changes in the atmosphere,” Whiteside said. “After Tambora, the sunsets and sunrises would have been absolutely stunning. The sky would have been bright red with swirls of purple, blue and yellow.”
Also in the Indonesian region, which has many volcanoes, the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa caused a similar situation to the Tambora eruption almost 70 years earlier. This event affected people all over the world, with some crediting Edvard Munch with his 1893 painting The Scream.,” captures the otherworldly changes in the sky that resulted, as he writes:
I was walking down the street with two friends. At that moment, the sun went down, the sky suddenly turned bright red, and I felt depressed. I stopped and leaned against the railing, feeling extremely tired. Bloody clouds and tongues of flame hung over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends continued talking and I stood alone, shaking with anxiety. I felt a loud, never-ending scream that pierced through nature.
“Geology has always been connected to the human condition,” Whiteside says. “These volcanic events have shaped our perception of humanity’s interaction with the natural world. It shows you what you are doing.”