After thirty years of investigation, researchers have discovered where the volcanic explosion took place that caused the medieval “year without summer” in 1258.
In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists reveal that when Samalas Volcano, located on Lombok Island in Indonesia, exploded sometime between May and October 1257, it was the largest blast the earth had seen in 7000 years.
The blast, which was significantly greater than the explosion at Krakatoa in 1883, left volcanic debris from the Arctic to Antarctica. The researchers write:
Tree-ring, historical, and archeological records attest to substantial climatic impacts, which were most pronounced in the northern hemisphere in A.D. 1258. Medieval chronicles highlight an unseasonable cold summer with incessant rains, associated with devastating ﬂoods and poor harvests.
Last year archaeologists discovered that a mass burial in London took place in 1258, as famine struck the country. The English chronicler Matthew Paris wrote that during this year “the north wind blew without intermission, a continued frost prevailed, accompanied by snow and such unendurable cold, that it bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle to such an extent that it seemed as if a general plague was raging amongst the sheep and lambs.”
Trying to figure out which volcanic event caused this blast has puzzled scientists and historians for three decades. Volcanoes in New Zealand, Ecuador and Mexico were considered as possible sites for the explosion.
The researchers were led by geographer Franck Lavigne of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. He explained, “This eruption was known by many different disciplines, many researchers, but the main problem may be that they worked individually. I think this is a key point for work on other eruptions. We had geologists, geochemists, geographers, historians, radiocarbon-dating specialists, and many others—all these researchers from different specialties to combine facts.”
While the blast caused worldwide climate disruptions, those living close to the eruption suffered terrible damage. The researchers state:
At the local and regional scales, the socio-economic and environmental consequences of this cataclysmic event must have been dramatic. Signiﬁcant parts of Lombok, Bali, and the western part of Sumbawa were likely left sterile and uninhabitable for generations. This ﬁnding might provide insights as to the reasons why the Javanese King Kertanegara, who invaded Bali in A.D. 1284, did not encounter any resistance by local population. The Babad Lombok indicates that the eruption of Mount Samalas destroyed Pamatan, the capital of the Lombok kingdom. We speculate that this ancient city lies buried beneath tephra deposits somewhere on the island. Should it be discovered, Pamatan might represent a “Pompeii of the Far East,” and could provide important insights not only into Indonesian history but also into the vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience of past societies faced with volcanic hazards associated with large-magnitude explosive eruptions.
The article, “Source of the great A.D. 1257 mystery eruption unveiled, Samalas volcano, Rinjani Volcanic Complex, Indonesia,” will appear in an upcoming issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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