1816 Was The Year Without A Summer

In today’s climate emergency, the world faces ever-rising temperatures which threaten to disrupt human existence in increasingly frightening ways. But back in 1816, people faced a very different danger. In fact, the change to the planet’s climate went in the opposite direction and many regions suffered through a summer that was positively wintry.

That year, the winter was, by all reports, fairly usual – dry and not particularly cold. But spring was slow to arrive, and the summer simply didn’t happen. Waves of cold struck again and again. And to make matters worse, later that year, crops failed, bringing the specter of hunger, even starvation, to people across the globe.

The average temperature across the world fell in some places by more than a degree. Now, this may not sound like much of a change, but it in fact represents some stretches of very cold weather. So extensive was the chill that 1816 earned the nickname the Year Without a Summer. Some, though, gave it a more ominous title, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.

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During what should have been the warmer seasons of 1816, a gloomy fog settled over America’s eastern seaboard. It shifted sunlight into a red haze, making it so dim during the day that sunspots could seen without a telescope. Nothing could clear the fog, not wind nor rain, as it continued to block the sun.

However, when 1816 dawned, there was no hint of the climate disruption that would follow. In New England, January was about average, with some areas enjoying warmer weather than usual and some cooler. But as the year went on, temperatures did not rise as much expected, and the area’s rainfall levels were lower than usual.

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Up until May, the weather stayed dry and cold enough that crops not only wouldn’t grow, they couldn’t even be planted. But while the weather had been slightly off, it didn’t really suggest the disaster that was to follow. That same month, though, a local woman reported that the weather was “backward.” It seems that an unseasonal frost struck the northeast of the States. And June would bring snow.

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For some, the snow was an occasion to get out the sleigh. But in a diary entry dated June 7, Benjamin Harwood revealed the grim reality of the unseasonal cold. He wrote, “The surface of the ground was stiff with frost [and] the leaves of the trees were blackened. Past six in the morning a wash-tub full of rain water was scum’d with ice, snow remained on Sandgate and Manchester Mountain past noon or as late as that.”

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This frost hurt crops significantly. But local people in New England were used to lengthy winters, even if there arrived during the summer. Indeed, in some parts of the state, growing crops was hard even when the weather was good. However, in May, crops died off in the more elevated regions, while June saw even New York’s state capital, Albany, receive snow.

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Virginian Pharaoh Chesney later said of the cold weather, “On July 4, water froze in cisterns and snow fell again, with Independence Day celebrants moving inside churches where hearth fires warmed things a mite.” In the meantime, American founder Thomas Jefferson also struggled during the harsh conditions. A failed corn crop left the former president needing to take out a loan to keep his Monticello plantation running.

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Nicholas Bennet, a New York-based member of the Shaker community, added to the story of woe. He wrote that “all was froze” in May and claimed that the hills were “barren like winter.” Indeed, temperatures dropped under freezing on nearly every day that month. By June, the Shakers were having to plant crops again to replace those lost to cold.

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In some places in New England, there were only two stretches of time that didn’t feature frost, and snow occurred across the region in June. The consequences of the extreme weather for crops were severe. Corn didn’t have a chance to ripen, while far fewer vegetables and fruits than normal were produced. And those that survived proved poor specimens.

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Contemporary historian William G. Atkins wrote, “Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7 and 8 snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots… In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk, it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting. Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food.”

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During August, there was ice on rivers and lakes hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania, and Virginia was experiencing frost. A lot of the time, the temperature would swing from close to freezing all the way through to highs in the mid-90s in just a few hours. And the cold wasn’t restricted to the northern U.S.

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In the southern states, even Savannah, Georgia, found itself shivering on Independence Day. Indeed, only reached a freezing 46 °F. Further north, a Virginia newspaper would report, “It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer.” By September, another publication would claim that corn crop yields might be down by as much as two-thirds.

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Looking back, it’s clear that 1816 was an unusually chilly year. New Haven, Connecticut’s summer average during that period was the coldest ever, almost five degrees down from the mean for records spanning nearly 200 years. All across New England, it was the same story. Temperatures were as much as seven degrees below average for months on end.

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By the time the season for growing had ended, the scale of the catastrophe could be seen. Crops were devastated. As reported by local newspaper, the New Hampshire Patriot in October, “Indian corn, on which a large proportion of the poor depend, is cut off. It is believed that through New England scarcely a tenth part of the usual crop of sound corn will be gathered.”

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Where farmers did manage to grow some food, the price of successful crops went through the roof. One of the reasons that costs soared was transport. In an age before cars or trains, and little in the way of railroads or highways, moving produce around was expensive. It was also a logistical nightmare. And that problem extended throughout North America.

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In Quebec, Canada, local people struggled to find enough to eat, with bread in short supply. The Halifax (Nova Scotia) Weekly Chronicle reported in December, “It has been given us from the most authentic sources, that several parishes in the interior part of [Quebec] are already so far in want of provisions, as to create the most serious alarms among the inhabitants.”

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This crisis, however, had one surprising outcome for farmers in New England. Many jumped in their wagons, hoping for easier weather out west. And this shift away from an area that had fallen foul of the climate had something of an unintended consequence. In fact, it helped fuel the rise to statehood in 1816 of Indiana, swiftly followed by Illinois in 1818.

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As author Henry Stommel alongside Elizabeth, his wife, wrote in 1983, “The summer of 1816 marked the point at which many New England farmers who had weighed the advantages of going west made up their minds to do so.” L. D. Stillwell, a historian, figured that double the usual amount of people quit Vermont, not just during 1816, but also the following year. And that meant around 15,000 residents upped sticks due to the freezing conditions.

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The effects of the Year Without a Summer were felt outside the U.S., too. Rain fell incessantly in Ireland, destroying potato yields, while torrential downpours struck the rest of Europe. Produce everywhere failed to grow. This situation then led to “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world,” as described by John D. Post, a historian.

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As a result, famine gripped all of Europe, as the cost of what food there was quickly rose. Starving, desperate people were everywhere. In Wales, for instance, families begged from town to town for something to eat. At the same time, cities across the continent saw violence, as people looked for someone to blame.

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Worse was to follow for the population of Ireland, already weakened by starvation. In the wake of the famine, an epidemic of typhus gripped the country. It’s thought that by 1819 it had killed about 100,000 people. And the disease then spread into the rest of Britain, increasing the misery caused by the Year Without a Summer.

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Indeed, the year’s bad weather had lasting effects across Europe. The cold caused ice to dam a river beneath the Giétro Glacier in Switzerland. When it broke in 1818, releasing the lake that had formed behind it, 40 people drowned. The country had already been struck by raging violence, which led the government to announce a state of national emergency.

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For some years before 1816, western Europe had suffered lower than usual crop yields. But now the area, riven by the Napoleonic Wars, was hit by a shortage of produce. Riots over food happened in France and the U.K., and hungry people looted warehouses, desperate to get sustenance in any way that they could.

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During 1816, massive storms struck across Europe, and rivers flooded. Just like New England, the continent suffered frost in August. A BBC documentary has since estimated, using Swiss figures, that the death rate for that 12-month period had actually doubled. Which meant that the Year Without a Summer was responsible for the end of 200,000 lives on the continent.

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In the meantime, across Asia, cold struck hard. Tibet and China saw rice paddies and trees fall foul of the weather, which also killed many water buffalo. Climate disruption caused an abnormal monsoon, bringing floods that destroyed what crops had grown. And, to make things much worse, cholera raged across the continent in the wake of massive rainfall.

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But what caused the freakishly chilly weather that essentially canceled summer in the Northern Hemisphere that year? To find answers, we need to go to Sumbawa, an Indonesian island, where the Mount Tambora volcano still exists today. And at the start of the 1800s, it stood 14,100 feet above ground level.

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In April 1815, however, the volcano erupted in spectacular style. The ash that it spewed into the atmosphere is thought to be responsible for the following Year Without a Summer. The climate change that it brought was unprecedented, with several factors coming together in a way that they hadn’t since the Stone Age.

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Rumblings from the volcano had started earlier that month, having been dormant for millennia. On April 10, three spikes of fire exploded from Tambora. As a result, smoke from the eruption reached heights of 25 miles straight into the air. Extremely hot ash rocketed down the sides of the mountain, obliterating everything in its way and eventually cooling into big blocks of pumice in the sea.

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The eruption devastated the island, removing all its greenery. Ash shrouded the summit as late as April 23, while smaller explosions continued to rock the volcano up to four years later. Small tsunamis swept across what is now Indonesia, causing thousands of deaths. As late as October 1816, British ships were still coming across the pumice rafts that had formed after the eruption.

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Ash fell on the area for weeks afterwards, making water undrinkable and killing off any remaining forests and crops. On Sumbawa and nearby Lombok, around 90,000 lost their lives as a result of the eruption. And once the event was over, the mountain itself ended up at just over 9,300 feet high. The rest of its elevation went up in smoke during what is still considered the largest volcanic explosion ever witnessed.

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During the eruption, gas thrown up from the volcano then mixed with water vapor to create a cloud of sulfuric acid. Along with fine ash particles, this was blown into the stratosphere and blocked out the sun. That lack of solar rays, though, did have one positive effect. It was responsible for some beautiful sunsets, long and interestingly colored – shading from pink and purple into red and orange, across the world.

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Up to 132 million tons of sulfurous material found its way into the atmosphere following the explosion, wreaking havoc on the world’s climate. And that all came from a single eruption, recorded as ten times larger than any other in 1815. It also coincided with a Dalton Minimum, a time of particularly low radiation from the sun.

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And in 2019, University of Edinburgh scientist Dr. Andrew Schurer confirmed that the eruption had indeed caused the Year Without a Summer. He wrote, “These volcanic aerosols reduce net shortwave radiation causing widespread, long-lasting surface cooling. They also lead to a reduction in global rainfall, while wettening some dry regions, and causing dynamic changes in the large-scale circulation of both ocean and atmosphere.”

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The terrible weather of 1816 did, however, have some good outcomes. Forced to remain inside by the unceasing rain, the poet Lord Byron and friends set to writing horror stories. The effort by Mary Wollstonecraft, better known by her married name Shelley, gained lasting renown: it was Frankenstein.

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And in Germany, the poor crop of oats highlighted how much transportation relied on horses. So inventor Karl Drais may well have taken this as inspiration for his velocipede or “draisine.” This was a forerunner of the bicycle; however, it didn’t have any pedals. It was, in fact, powered by jogging, leading to a third name, the “running machine.”

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The effect that the eruption of Mount Tambora had on the climate back then is clear. It seems, though, that the volcano wasn’t solely responsible for all the meteorological changes at the time. In fact, some who’ve studied the extreme weather of the period found that a trend toward cooler temperatures had already started by 1815. Nor was the disruption caused by the volcano global: the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t seem to have been much affected.

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In the intervening years, the eruption left its mark on both art and science. Paintings, including Turner’s 1828 depiction of Chichester Canal, feature the brilliant sunsets that it created. And today, scientists use the event as something of a marker, with the elevated sulfur content found in ice cores representing its aftermath.

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New England resident Adino Brackett summed up the Year Without a Summer in a diary entry added towards the end of 1816. He wrote, “This past summer and fall have been so cold and miserable that I have from despair kept no account of the weather. It could have been nothing but a repeatation [sic] of frost and drought.” Let’s hope that in the future, winters only appear when they’re supposed to.

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