1816 – The Year Without A Summer

Here in Philadelphia in late October of this year we had a freak snowstorm.  Almost a foot of snow, power lines knocked out, trees downed, and it wasn’t even Halloween yet!  Pretty freaky, eh?  But not unheard of.

Okay, now imagine that freak snowfall happening in June.  Yes, June.  It happened in 1816.

We tend to get upset and obsessed with the weather in the modern world, but we also kind of overlook what the weather did historically.  Global warming! people shout.  But it wasn’t global warming in 1816.

Spring, 1816.  Northeastern North America.  A persistent, reddish-brown haze hung in the air like a fog that wouldn’t go away.  Temperatures had been on the rise as they usually are in Spring, but they kept snapping back to cold.  Serious, inappropriate cold.  In May, all throughout the region, sudden frosts decimated the newly planted crops.  And still the cold wouldn’t go away.  Sure, it would begin to warm up now and then, but just as quickly everything would snap back to cold.

In June nearly a foot of snow fell in the area of Quebec City, across Maine, and even around Albany, New York.  A foot of snow!  In June!  Further south, as far south as Philadelphia, rivers and lakes continued to freeze well into July and even August.  The result was disastrous.  Crops failed everywhere.  In an era when you depended on local produce for your sustenance and where food wasn’t shipped in from around the world this meant widespread hunger, starvation, and the emergence of epidemics.

It wasn’t just a year without a summer in North America either.  In Ireland the cold and frost killed off enough of the nation’s crops that over 100,000 people died from starvation and its resulting diseases.  In Britain the summer was cold and wet.  Not only were local harvests poor, but the little international trade that did exist, corn and wheat that was usually shipped over from New England, came to a virtual stand-still.

The works of JMW Turner depict what this all looked like

Harvests were also poor across all of Western Europe and temperatures remained low.  Dark clouds filled the sky.  By the winter of 1817 brown snow was falling in Hungary and red snow in Italy.  Red snow!  With food prices soaring across Europe and no way of knowing what was going on riots broke out.  The starving poor attacked grain markets and bakeries.  There was chaos, looting, arson.

It was the worst famine of the 19th century.

What the heck happened????

All the wrong things at all the wrong time.

Starting in 1812 there were a series of volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and the Pacific.  Whenever a volcano of that magnitude erupts it spews tons and tons of ash and dust into the sky.  This ash and dust prevents the sun’s rays from penetrating to the surface, thus lowering the overall temperature of the planet.  One volcano is an inconvenience.  It does things like, oh, shuts down air traffic over parts of Northwestern Europe.  Remember that?  But the Earth turns, the wind blows, and it disburses.  Multiple volcanoes, however, present a bigger problem.  From 1812 to 1816 there were several gigantic volcanoes.  The final straw in this series was the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia during April of 1816.  This eruption was so tremendous and powerful that scientific historians believe it was the largest eruption in 1600 years.  It threw so much ash and dust into the sky and blocked the sun to such an extent that there was a foot of snow in the Quebec/Maine/New York region in June.

Mount Tambora

But it wasn’t just the volcanoes.  As luck would have it, the sun was going through a period of low activity at the time, known as The Dalton Minimum.  This period lasted from about 1790 to 1830 and was named after the scientist, John Dalton, who first observed it.  Basically it means that the sun was just less active, sending less energy to Earth.  Incidentally, we are now in a period known as The Modern Maximum, in which the sun is sending an unusually high amount of energy our way. *cough*global warming*cough*

The result of The Dalton Minimum, combined with the eruption of Mount Tambora, wreaked havoc on the climate of the world.  Not only did it cause The Year Without A Summer, it made for a few VERY cold winters in the following years.

So why did I blog about this today?  Because I just found out about the event and I thought it was fascinating!  Seriously.  Imagine what it would have been like to live back then, without TV or The Weather Channel app on your iPhone, without anyone who knew much more than their life on the farm had taught them.  Imagine the anxiety and the panic that probably ran rampant.  And we get upset about global warming now!  I also tend to be one of those people who thinks that Mother Nature is a lot more powerful than Mankind and that if the temperature is rising or there are more storms these days it’s not something we did, it’s something She’s doing.

Like all these earthquakes we’ve been having lately?  I wonder what good old Mother Nature has in store for us next.

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