1816: The year without a summer

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drawing of eruption of Tambora
A rather fanciful drawing of the eruption of Mount Tambora, which caused the "Year without a Summer." (Wikimedia Commons photo)

We’ve been having some strange weather this spring, cold and wet, but it could be worse.

Nandad, my grandfather, Sherman Moore, who was born in 1867, used to tell of hearing the old-timers, including his own grandfather, tell of the year when the Fourth of July was celebrated by throwing snowballs.

No summer

This wasn’t at the Arctic Circle, by the way, but across New York and New England and reaching as far south as Pennsylvania and even Virginia.

This phenomenon occurred 200 years ago, in 1816, and was known by such names as “The Year Without a Summer,” The “Poverty Year” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death” or “Starve to Death,” among others.

At the time, U.S. agriculture was confined to the original 13 colonies, with most grain grown in New England and eastern New York and Pennsylvania, while the more southern states along the Atlantic seaboard raised mostly cotton and tobacco.

Volcano

This was the situation when, on April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora, a long dormant volcano on an obscure island east of Java, in what is now Indonesia, erupted with explosive force, spewing out vast amounts of molten rock and sending millions of tons of sulphur dioxide and volcanic dust into the atmosphere.

The earthquakes and tsunamis resulting from the Mount Tambora eruption killed tens of thousands of people in the islands but wasn’t really of much interest to Europe and the U.S., where the news was all about Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Even then no thought was given to the volcano as a cause in the spring of 1816, when the weather across the northern hemisphere began to turn decidedly weird.

Unusually cold

The winter itself had been unusually cold, but spring never seemed to come, with hard frosts every month.

One Virginia resident recalled, “In June another snowfall came and folks went sleighing. 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.”

The Boston Independent Chronicle in Trenton, New Jersey, reported June 17, 1816, “On the night of 6th instant, after a cold day, Jack Frost paid another visit to this region of the country, and nipped the beans, cucumbers, and other tender plants.

“This surely is cold weather for summer. On the 5th we had quite warm weather, and in the afternoon copious showers attended with lightning and thunder — then followed high cold winds from the northwest, and back again the above mentioned unwelcome visitor. On the 6th, 7th, and 8th June, fires were quite agreeable company in our habitations.”

Frozen

Clothes froze on the line in New England; ice on ponds and lakes was reported in northwestern Pennsylvania in both July and August; and Virginia had frost in August.
The temperature occasionally got into the 90s, but then would drop to nearly freezing in just a few hours.

In upstate New York, crops that had begun to grow were frozen out in early June, replanted, and frozen again in July.

Very few crops were harvested and of those that yielded anything were poor.

Food and grain prices went through the roof — in 1815, for example, oats sold for $0.12 a bushel, but by the next year had soared to $0.92 a bushel.

At the time there were no railroads, major canals or decent road networks, so even if a few areas might have a surplus there was no way to move it and people went hungry.

Coldest ever

In her book, Under Old Roof Trees, published in 1908, Eliza B. Hornby from Warwick, New York, wrote:

“The year 1816 was the coldest ever known in this country. It is remembered as the year without a summer. There were snow and ice every month.

“On June 17th, a terrible snowstorm swept from New England to New York, in which travelers were frozen to death. Farmers worked in overcoats and mittens to but little purpose. Scarcely anything planted grew.

“On our home place were a number of fine fruit trees. The young fruit managed to get a start, when there came a freezing rain. Every cherry, pear, apple, plum and peach was encased in an armor of ice, and was literally shaved from the trees by a fierce, cutting wind.

“On the 4th of July, ice formed an inch thick. There was great scarcity and consequent suffering during the ensuing winter. The grain crop was a total failure.”

Around the world

Much of the rest of the world was affected as well. Excessive rain and cold temperatures prevailed in northern Europe.

The potato crop in Ireland rotted in the ground and widespread starvation resulted.

In England, France and Germany wheat crops failed leading to bread shortages and food riots and looting. Northern China was hard hit with thousands of people starving to death.

In southern Asia, torrential rains triggered a cholera epidemic that killed many more.

Moving west

All this misery spurred a mass migration of Europeans to the American “west” — at that time Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and southern Michigan, as well as western New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia areas — that were opened after the War of 1812.

Many New England farmers, after suffering through the hard times of 1816, packed their families and belongings into wagons and headed west as well, searching for “the Promised Land.”

At the time no one knew what had happened, some people blamed it on sun spots, but folks knew there was something strange going on.

What happened?

An Albany, New York, newspaper wrote in October: “The weather during the past summer has been generally considered as very uncommon, not only in this country, but, as it would seem from newspaper accounts, in Europe also.

“Here it has been dry, and cold. We do not recollect the time when the drought has been so extensive, and general, not when there has been so cold a summer.

There have been hard frosts in every summer month, a fact that we have never known before. It has also been cold and dry in some parts of Europe, and very wet in other places in that quarter of the world.”

Volcanic link

It was many years before meteorologists made the connection between Mount Tambora’s eruption and the “Year Without a Summer.”

It seems clear that the sulphur dioxide released by the volcano, as it spread around the world, changed into sulfate ions which crystallized and reflected some of the sun away from the earth, causing the cool temperatures.

Happily, there seems to have been no such cataclysm occurring in the world in 2015, and there are signs that nice weather is in the offing, so there’s not much chance of 2016 repeating the catastrophe of 200 years ago.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Ok fast forward to 2018, kiluaha, fugeo , and most of the world’s volcanos are becoming active or near becoming active, 2017 was close, but yeah nothing 2015 and 2016, 2018 now is the ? for another historical repeat in the age of the internet.

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