The bicentenary of the Tambora eruption in April 2015 passed with scarcely a murmur in Australia, obsessed as our leaders were with remembering events in Gallipoli a century earlier. In 1815 the indigenous Australians of the northern coast who heard the strange explosion, saw the sun obscured or experienced a tsunami did not leave us records. Only since the 1990s have the dots of geology, climatology and history been connected to reveal this as the most devastating eruption of the last 500 years, causing global cooling, widespread famines around the world, and the devastation of our neighbours like Bali and Lombok.
Other Indonesian eruptions probably caused global cooling and crop failures in the early 17th century and in 1258. The 20th century, exceptionally ‘mild’ in tectonic terms but full of political conflicts and threats, distorted Australia’s sense of what it should be worried about. Our large military budgets, our debilitating bonds to Washington, are premised on politico-military threats very unlikely to eventuate unless we play our cards disastrously. ‘Natural’ disasters on the scale of Tambora, however, will happen with a modicum of certainty. What are they likely to mean for Australia, and how ready will we be?