Monday, April 26, 2010

The Unintended Consequences of Volcanic Ash

This morning as I drove to work the weatherperson announced that New England was likely to feel the impact this summer from the volcanic ash spewing from Iceland’s completely unpronounceable volcano, Eyjafjallajokull.

We've been lucky thus far, with prevailing winds keeping our airspace clear and clean.

But, if the weatherperson is to be believed, we could lose as much as two degrees from our average temperatures this summer.  If that means 88 instead of 90, I’m all for it, but there have been plenty of New England summers where the loss of two degrees was enough to throw us back into an ice age.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had such a disruption, and it’s hardly the worst we’ve seen.  In 1815, Tambora (in Indonesia), a volcano roughly 10,000 times more powerful than Eyjafjallajokull, sent 400 million tons of gas and dust circling the globe.  The result in 1816 was “the year without a summer.”  Snow fell in New England in June, July and August, leading to widespread crop failure in many parts of the region and throughout North America and Europe.

This past weekend the Wall Street Journal did a great comparison of past eruptions, courtesy of James P. Sterba.

But here’s where the story gets even more interesting.  The farmers of New England, especially northern New England, had been slowly moving West over the decades prior to 1816 as they discovered just how impossible it was to eek out a living in the cool, rocky soil of places like New Hampshire and Vermont.  In fact, the snowy summer of 1816 brought about by Tambora was the straw that broke the potatoes’ backs, so to speak, causing New England farm families to head west in droves.

Indeed, more than a few concluded that this bizarre summer was a precursor to Judgment Day and the millennium.

One hardscrabble Vermont farming family heading west--worth more than a passing nod--was the Smiths.  Mr. Smith picked up and moved to Palmyra, New York, where farming proved to be just as difficult.  By 1825, he, his wife and their eight children had lost their farm to foreclosure.

Pressed to feed his family, Mr. Smith and his son, Joseph Jr., earned money by finding the location of possible buried treasure for neighboring farmers—a claim prompted by the existence of Mound Builders in prehistoric New York.  In this line of work Joseph Jr. employed a “seerstone,” a kind of folk magic common among early nineteenth-century New Englanders.

After visits by an angel named Moroni (who, like Tambora, delivered warnings of the Second Coming) beginning in 1823, and news in America that Jean-Francois Champollon was deciphering the Rosetta Stone in Europe, Joseph unburied golden plates in 1827 which were inscribed in a lost scripture called Reformed Egyptian.  Transcribed and brought to a publisher in Rochester, New York, this would become The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder-day Saints.

As Daniel Walker Howe said so well, The Book of Mormon should rank among one of the great achievements in American literature if 1) those who read and love it would attribute the authorship to Joseph Smith, which they will not, or 2) those who ridicule it would actually read it.

Today, Mormonism is the fastest growing faith group in American history.

Unintended consequences galore: no Tambora, no “year without summer,” no move of a destitute farming family from Vermont, no discovery of golden plates in New York, no Book of Mormon, no Mormonism.

What, then, do you suppose the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, still unprounceable and 10,000 times less powerful than Tambora, might bring for unintended consequences?  A two-degree cooler summer?A day trip to the Berkshires? No Apology

Mitt Romney?