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Years without summer

The earth’s continental plates and islands that emerge from the depths of the sea show us that nothing is static in nature. The marine floor of the Pacific Ocean shifts about 12 centimeters every year; someday, the Hawaiian Islands will be visible from the coasts of Asia. The Indian subcontinent will keep bumping into the Eurasian plate, the peaks of the Himalayas will keep getting taller, and there will be more catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis like those in Sumatra in 2004, in Chile in 2010, and in Japan in 2011.

Darwin began to understand the magnitude of the geological scale of time in coastal Chile, in the southernmost part of the world, when he found fossils of seashells in the Andes at an altitude of 3,000 meters. He then imagined how much time it would take for all of that to move to the mountaintops from the ocean floor. Not long before, he had witnessed the eruption of the Osorno volcano and the terrible consequences of the subsequent mega-earthquake and tsunami when the Beagle dropped anchor in Conception Bay in 1835.

It has been speculated that many of Turner’s rosy skies were due not only to smoke from the chimneys of the incipient Industrial Revolution, but also to the added effects of the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia. It was such an impressive explosion that ash particles ascended thousands of kilometers and dispersed all across the terrestrial globe. Mortality rates in Europe have been analyzed, and simulations appear to confirm this tragic reality. The next year, 1816, was known as “the year without summer,” months and days during which the Sun never shone at all and a persistent fog polluted and yellowed the atmosphere. Coincidence or not, it was one night that year that Mary Shelley wrote one of the most frightening stories ever created, etching Frankenstein into our collective imagination.