History’s deadliest volcano rumbles

Mount Tambora: Farmers in Indonesia mostly ignore orders to evacuate the slopes of live volcanoes, but those living on Tambora took no chances when history’s deadliest mountain rumbled threateningly this month.

“A dragon sleeping inside the crater, that’s what we thought. If we made him angry – were disrespectful to nature, say – he’d wake up spitting flames, destroying all of mankind,” one villager said.

The April 1815 eruption of Tambora left a crater 11 kilometres wide and 1 kilometre deep, spewing an estimated 400 million tons of sulfuric gases into the atmosphere and leading to ‘the year without summer’ in the U.S. and Europe.

“It was 10 times more powerful than Indonesia’s much better-known Krakatoa blast of 1883 – history’s second deadliest. But it doesn’t share the same international renown, because the only way news spread across the oceans at the time was by slow boat,” said Tambora researcher Indyo Pratomo. In contrast, Krakatoa’s eruption occurred just as the telegraph became popular.

The reluctance of people to return to villages less than 10 kilometres from Tambora’s crater sounds like simple good sense. But it runs contrary to common practice in the sprawling nation of 240 million that is home to more volcanoes than any other in the world. Even as Merapi, Kelut and other famously active mountains shoot out towering pillars of hot ash, farmers cling to their fertile slopes, leaving only when soldiers load them into trucks at gunpoint. They return before it’s safe to check on their livestock and crops.

But people in Tambora are jittery because of the mountain’s history. They’re not used to feeling the earth move so violently beneath their feet. Aside from a few minor bursts in steam in the 1960s, the mountain has been quiet for much of the last 200 years.

Gede Suantika of the government’s Centre for Volcanology said activity first picked up in April, with the volcanic quakes jumping from less than five a month to more than 200.

“It also started spewing ash and smoke into the air, sometimes as high as 1,400 meters,” he said. “That’s something I’ve never seen it do before.”

Authorities raised the alert to the second-highest level two weeks ago, but said only villagers within 3 kilometres from the crater needed to evacuate.

But hundreds of men, women and children who lived outside the danger zone too packed their belongings and headed to the homes of family and friends elsewhere on Sumbawa Island.

“We’ve urged them to go back to harvest their crops, get their kids back in school, but we’re having a hard time,” said Syaifullah, a community chief in Pekat, at the foot of the 2,700 meter mountain.

Most people finally trickled back to their homes by Monday.