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Atmospheres

The eruption of Mount Tambora on Indonesia in 1815 changed the world. “Within weeks, Tambora’s stratospheric ash cloud circled…By Kevin Berger

The eruption of Mount Tambora on Indonesia in 1815 changed the world. “Within weeks, Tambora’s stratospheric ash cloud circled the planet at the equator, from where it embarked on a slow-moving sabotage of the global climate system at all latitudes,” writes author and English professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

“Artists across Europe took note of the changed atmosphere. William Turner drew vivid red skyscapes that, in their coloristic abstraction, seem like an advertisement for the future of art. Meanwhile, from his studio on Greifswald Harbor in Germany, Caspar David Friedrich painted a sky with a chromic density that—one scientific study has found—corresponds to the ‘optical aerosol depth’ of the colossal volcanic eruption that year.”

In his book, Tambora, D’Arcy Wood argues that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Charles Dickens’ vivid tales of industrial fallout on Victorian Londoners materialized under Great Britain’s tenebrous skies. It’s a chilling thesis that affirms how the atmosphere that envelops us forever scars us. To his credit and his readers’ enlightenment, D’Arcy Wood is talking about more than the complex layer of gases that surround Earth and sustain biological life. He is talking about the cultural and political atmospheres that shape and define our personal lives. Ultimately, he is talking about the perpetual collision between nature and the humans ransacking its terrains.

Eruption of Vesuvius, by J.M.W. Turner, 1817

This month we are turning our magnifying glasses on atmospheres. With global warming upon us, the time is now for a closer look. Can what we do in our cultural and personal atmospheres change what happens in Earth’s atmosphere? In our first chapter, Climate, our writers journey to the center of our minds to show we are plenty capable of feeling that preserving nature is preserving ourselves. It’s just going to take a shift in perspective.

“People have a hard time thinking about things that are five years in the future,” Jonathan E. Nichols, an associate research professor at Columbia University’s Lamon-Doherty Earth Observatory, tells Mark MacNamara, author of this week’s article, “We Need to Talk About Peat.” “That has to do with scarcity and trying to get by day-to-day. It’s difficult to think about things that aren’t immediate. That’s not anyone’s fault, necessarily. But once our society is in a place where we can afford to think about things on a longer time scale, then we’ll have more appreciation for science in general.” And more appreciation of the immediate demands upon us of arresting global warming.

That shift in perspective is not easy. But scientists are leading the way. And that means Nautilus is right behind, keeping their research in the light.


Lead image: muratart / Shutterstock

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