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The Year Without Summer

Photo by Hrafnhildur Árnadóttir | CC BY 2.0


In the wake of eruptions in Indonesia, Paul Tritschler wanders through the mad dream that is our existence, and weaves through the cosmic and volcanic forces that might easily tip our fragile climatic balance.

The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one they say, but still they come. Boulders ejected from the planet’s surface by asteroid impacts hurtle towards Earth as though flicked by the miscreant children of gods. Most miss, are drawn to Jupiter, or disintegrate on entry, but they need only be lucky once, whilst we must be lucky every day. One such boulder resides in the Natural History Museum in London, a crumb of once-molten meteoric iron resembling a man hunched up in a womb-like position. I visit the old man from time to time, as one would a grave, to ground myself in the heavens.

There are potentially millions of boulders in the universe stamped with destination Earth. One boulder, burning three times brighter than the sun, shot across the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013. Ten thousand tons travelling at forty-two thousand miles per hour, it released thirty times more energy than the bomb dropped over Hiroshima, but only became visible shortly before it burst, and only burst owing to its angle of entry – around twenty miles up, narrowly avoiding global devastation. Miraculously, no one was killed, though two thousand attended hospital with temporary blindness, or with cuts from windows bursting across the city, and one woman had her back broken. People looked on helplessly – the imminent danger of death alters one’s priorities – but when there was nothing left hanging in the air but the smell of sulphur, the fearful spectators became emboldened speculators, rushing to gather the many meteorite fragments to sell them to the highest bidder.

Though it took 66 million years to make the news, our most famous boulder was six miles wide, and brought mega-tsunamis, planet-wide wildfires, shockwaves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and decades of dust, debris, darkness and global cooling. It left a big impression down Mexico way, 12 miles deep by 110 miles wide, and brought to an end life that had successfully evolved over a period of 150 million years, most strikingly the dinosaurs and the pterosaurs – flying reptiles the size of Spitfires. Their unfortunate demise cleared the path for other species to evolve, notably mammals and Homo sapiens; our species could not have co-existed with dinosaurs, just as many species cannot thrive alongside ours – a situation likely to worsen given our growth rate: there are currently over 7 billion of us, three times the level of the 1960s.

Boulders wiped out some species, but they ensured the survival of others; many scientists, in fact, consider them the most likely source of organic life on this planet. Several geneticists applied Moore’s Law of the development of microprocessors to the progression of life from our prokaryotic predecessors – our unicellular selves – and estimated life in all its complexity to be ten billion years old – twice the age of the Earth. It raises the question of what pebble we peopled, albeit in embryonic form, and its point of origin: is there life elsewhere? Perhaps in the scale of things we are as yet in something comparable to the amoeboid state, unable to know what we are unable to know, like a bug hopelessly unaware of why it is being shunted back and forth on a car window wiper. We might require another billion years before lights turn on.

Progress is slow. We have moved from worshipping the Earth to the realisation we should worship it more. Even the shiny ball in the sky has been gradually gaining renewed respect in recent years, though opinion is divided with regard to how much influence it actually wields over us. This difference was reflected recently in a forecast of ‘space weather’, cheerfully announced over the radio: ‘no need to bring the washing in – the sun is merely belching gas, and at worst the city lights might conk out for a bit’. Others were not so insouciant about such solar storms, stressing the hazardous consequences of geomagnetic activity, volcanic effects, and severe weather changes. Some astronomers took the opportunity to state a possible connection between the solar inertial motion (gravitational effects caused by some movement of the sun), and climate change – a view championed by Czech astronomer, Ivanka Charvátová, though she has been struggling to have it aired among the CO2 obsessed.

Within a parallel orbit, the realm of cerebral as opposed to celestial mechanics, scientists have been considering the impact magnetic storms have on the brain. Research has revealed rates of clinical depression are highest in high latitudes: places where the amplitude of magnetic disturbances is greater. Oleg Shumilov carried out a study of peaks in geomagnetism over a fifty year period, and found they correlated with peaks in the suicide rate in the high latitude city of Kirovsk. This fits with research findings published in 1994 in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Ronald Kay, at that time a consultant psychiatrist in Falkirk, Scotland, who found psychiatric hospitals typically admitted a sharp increase of over 36 per cent during or soon after peak periods of geomagnetic storms.

Positive indications that the brain responds to magnetic storms are shown by the use of magnetic field modulators to induce sleep. Similarly, coils that generate electromagnetic fields have triggered muscular twitches when placed over a person’s skull, and some people suffering from depression have found their mood elevated after exposure to the electromagnetic fields generated by an MRI scanner. There is, in addition, correlational evidence of marked disturbances in the heart rate of foetuses during periods of high geomagnetic activity, and tests have shown that the pineal gland – essential to regulating our body clock and sleep rhythms – is sensitive to geomagnetism.

It would seem, then, that there are points of convergence between solar motions and climatic effects, and also support for possible points of convergence between geomagnetic storms and mental states. Quite by chance, some evidence of both possibilities surfaced during my foray into the works of Mary Shelley.

When Frankenstein was released in 1818, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published a review of the book by Walter Scott. I was keen to learn how it was received at the time, and this was the earliest publication I could find. Though far from perfect, Frankenstein was fertilised with the ideas of the ultra-radicals, Godwin, Paine, Wollstonecraft – the greatest minds of their time – and emerged from debates about the development of consciousness of self. I was also curious about whether Godwin’s 1799 gothic novel about immortality, ‘St. Leon’, had been considered an influence on his daughter’s Frankenstein – as it undoubtedly was on her later work, ‘Mortal Immortal’, in 1833. Given that the novel was anonymous, it was hardly surprising Scott assumed the author was male, and I believed it a vain hope that he would make the connection to Godwin. But in fact, he did just that: ‘Frankenstein is a novel upon the same plan with Saint Leon’ – Scott even went so far as to suggest the author might be Shelley (though Percy Bysshe, not Mary).

In the course of my quest, a chance glance at the volume’s contents led me to an account of a case that occurred two years earlier, in Baden-Württemberg, between a young patient and Doctor Johann Tritschler, who was from a branch of my Black Forest ancestry. It gave me a shiver. The article was as much about a paranormal experience as it was about animal magnetism – a sort of cross between hypnotism and reiki – and it was difficult to shake off the feeling that something more than mere coincidence was at work.

It all began on a dreary night of November 1816. Whilst Mary Shelley was drawing energy from freak electrical storms and sudden weather changes to build Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, a family in a small Black Forest village on the other side of the Alps called on Doctor Johann Tritschler to give his medical opinion on the condition of a thirteen-year-old boy named Matheus Schurr. The boy, according to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, was tormented by dreams and physical ailments: ‘His speech was rapid and loud, his face was pale and with an expression of anxiety, he complained often of violent pains in his body, of headache, sickness, and an inclination to vomit, and he not only trembled when he attempted to move, but had constant convulsions’.

Medicine proved ineffective, and over the next few days the boy got much worse; he spoke with a rapidity that showed he had as little control over his tongue as over the muscles of his limbs. However, while the doctor was admonishing his patient to be more quiet and composed, by mere accident he stroked the boy’s face once or twice with his hand, and immediately the wildness in his looks vanished. To his astonishment, the boy became calm and spoke gently, and he discovered that the healing process lay not in the medicine he prescribed, but the hands, especially the movement of the hands over the body without actually touching. After several visits the boy was cured – or he recovered, which of course isn’t necessarily the same thing – and the Doctor reluctantly conceded that the cure might be the ‘existence of an imperceptible agent acting by means of magnetical influence’. Thereafter, with regard to Doctor Tritschler’s casebook, it was consigned to the medical archive.

1816 was a dark year. Solar events created prolonged geomagnetic storms, and it is likely they contributed to the climatic mood swings. They may also have contributed to the mood swings of a section of the world’s population: the eminent Scottish scientist, David Brewster, invented the kaleidoscope in that year, and before he even reached the patent office there was mass demand for this brief but spectacular break from the gloom – a demand met through numerous copycat versions. No doubt a coincidence, it was the year the Scottish Enlightenment dimmed and, with the death of Adam Ferguson, the year it was extinguished. It was the year of swift weather shifts from calm to chaos, of blinding bursts and deafening blasts from freak electrical storms. It was the year Frankenstein was born, though he didn’t actually toddle into the bookshops until he was two. It was the year of ‘blood or bread’ riots, of the heavy midsummer hail that flattened crops, of mass migrations and the death of tens of thousands. It was the year the volcanic eruptions of Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, caused cataclysmic climate changes by draping a veil around the Earth. It was the year without a summer.

Fuelled by climate chaos, there was widespread apocalyptic concern in 1816. Millions were plunged into prolonged winter hardship, hunger and upheaval, and for almost everyone it was a strange and unsettling world – red mist emerged in major cities, including New York, rendering it possible to see sun spots with the naked eye. And then there were the magnetic storms; they are studied today for possible links with profoundly disturbed sleep and affective disorders, irregular heart rhythms and cardiovascular problems, unfocused anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. In the case of Matheus Schurr perhaps there was, after all, an ‘imperceptible agent acting by means of magnetical influence’.

Two hundred years on from the year without a summer, the world is once more in a perilous state: rising sea levels and global temperatures, heat waves causing tens of thousands of deaths, failing wheat crops, more frequent and more severe hurricanes, storms, droughts, floods and fires. Running parallel are the ever increasing risks of hunger, disease, poverty, homelessness and political unrest – some populations are already there – and whilst we can conceivably go on for decades retreating, rebuilding and shoring up after each freak flood or hurricane, whilst we can continue pushing to the back of our collective mind the plight of those suffering in the poorest continents, or in the poorest quarters of the wealthiest ones, what remains unchanged is the ecological catastrophe facing us: a petrol spill advancing towards a flame.

Scientists believe we have reached tipping point with regard to climate change, and that we should now combine our energies internationally to prepare planet-wide defence strategies against naturally occurring catastrophes. Given our fragile climate, the chance of recovering quickly from a Tambora-type tragedy today would be remote, and far less likely if an asteroid hit the planet – even the gravitational pull from an asteroid passing at close range could trigger a chain of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes to cause devastation on a global scale.

Many continue to dismiss climate change and asteroid impacts as the stuff of Hollywood, ignoring the fact of rising sea levels, and even the fact that one particular boulder – though ultimately it blazed a path for the evolution of humans – already wiped out life that had been around for tens of millions of years; it is somewhat ironic that in the last minute or so, relatively speaking, our species has almost wrecked the joint. The system on which the world is hooked, the productivist logic of capitalist industrial development, may well destroy itself and take everyone down with it. For Noam Chomsky, ‘We are now heading, eyes open, towards an environmental catastrophe that might end the human experiment just as it is wiping out species at a rate not seen since 65 million years ago when a huge asteroid hit the earth – and now we are the asteroid’.

Nothing could have prevented the catastrophic effects of 1816: the geomagnetic storms, the inertial solar motion, and the most powerful volcanic eruption in 10,000 years. But it is possible to imagine a world where the reason and compassion of thinkers such as Godwin and Paine prevailed as common sense, and where the possibility of millions exposed to hunger and hardship was an insane prospect. It is possible to imagine that world today, one free of inequality and exploitation, one that forms globally coordinated plans to counter or respond to natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and Chelyabinsk-style boulders – disasters that may render unstable this already fragile global climate. Poised on the edge of ecological catastrophe, it is crucial that we imagine it.

Postscript.

Later in the day of my excursion into the tumultuous year of 1816 – via Frankenstein, the Black Forest, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine – I found myself in the Tate Britain in Pimlico. In a bit of a dwam, I sat on a solitary bench in front of a painting of angels in armour wielding swords to defend a version of life on Earth – would they have flak jackets and machine guns today? A Japanese party got between me and the angels, and so I got up and began to wander. I found myself drawn to an uncharacteristic Turner – oil and graphite on paper, according to the elegantly spaced but minute typeface on the wall. It was hardly cheerful, but my curiosity was piqued by the dark tonalities deployed to pull the gaze into a bleak ravine, a place called Gordale Scar. I looked more closely and saw the year: 1816.

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