Year Without a Summer

Year Without a Summer

The Year Without a Summer, also known as the "Poverty Year", "The Year There Was No Summer" or "Eighteen hundred and froze to death", was 1816, in which severe summer climate abnormalities destroyed crops in Northern Europe, the American Northeast and eastern Canada. [ [ Saint John New Brunswick Time Date ] ] [] Historian John D. Post has called this "the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world". [ [] ] It appears to have been caused by a volcanic winter.


The unusual climatic aberrations of 1816 had the greatest effect on the American northeast, New England, the Canadian Maritimes, Newfoundland, and northern Europe. Typically, the late spring and summer of the northeastern U.S. are relatively stable: temperatures (average of both day and night) average about 68–77 °F (20–25 °C), and rarely fall below 41 °F (5 °C). Summer snow is an "extreme" rarity, though May flurries sometimes occur.

In May 1816, [ [ Weather Doctor's Weather People and History: Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death, The Year There Was No Summer ] ] however, frost killed off most of the crops that had been planted, and in June two large snowstorms in eastern Canada and New England resulted in many human deaths. Nearly a foot of snow was observed in Quebec City in early June, with consequent additional loss of crops—most summer growing plants have cell walls which rupture in a mild frost, let alone a snowstorm coating the soils. The result was widespread localized famines, and further deaths from those who, in a hunger-weakened state, then succumbed to disease.

In July and August, lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania. Rapid, dramatic temperature swings were common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures as high as 95 °F (35 °C) to near-freezing within hours. Even though farmers south of New England did succeed in bringing some crops to maturity, maize and other grain prices rose dramatically. Oats, for example, rose from 12¢ a bushel ($#expr:12/3.523907017round10/m³) the previous year to 92¢ a bushel ($#expr:92/3.523907017round0/m³)—nearly eight times as much—and oats are a necessary staple for an economy dependent upon horses for wdy|primary transportation. Those areas suffering local crop failures then had to deal with the lack of roads in the early 19th century, preventing any easy importation of bulky food stuffs.

In the ensuing bitter winter of 1817, when the thermometer dropped to -26°F, the waters of New York's Upper Bay froze so hard that horse-drawn sleighs were driven across Buttermilk Channel from Brooklyn to Governors Island. [Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898" (Oxford University Press) 1999:494.]


It is now generally thought that the aberrations occurred because of the 5 April – 15 April 1815 volcanic eruptions of Mount Tambora, [ [ Indo Digest ] ] [ [ : Misc ] ] the world's largest eruption in at least 1,600 years (Lake Taupo's Hatepe eruption of c. 180 AD was probably just as bighuh), on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) which ejected immense amounts of volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere. The fact that the eruptions occurred during the middle of the Dalton Minimum (a period of unusually low solar activity) is also significant.

Other volcanoes were active during the same time frame:
* La Soufrière on Saint Vincent in the Caribbean in 1812
* Mayon in the Philippines in 1814

These other eruptions had already built up a substantial amount of atmospheric dust. As is common following a massive volcanic eruption, temperatures fell worldwide because less sunlight passed through the atmosphere.


As a consequence of the series of volcanic eruptions, crops in the above cited areas had been poor for several years; the final blow came in 1815 with the eruption of Tambora. In America, many historians cite the "Year Without a Summer" as a primary motivation for the western movement and rapid settlement of what is now western and central New York and the American Midwest. Many New Englanders were wiped out by the year, and tens of thousands struck out for the richer soil and better growing conditions of the Upper Midwest (then the Northwest Territory).

Europe, still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in Britain and France and grain warehouses were looted. The violence was worst in landlocked Switzerland, where famine caused the government to declare a national emergency. Huge storms, abnormal rainfall with floodings of the major rivers of Europe (including the Rhine) are attributed to the event, as was the frost setting in during August 1816. A BBC documentary using figures compiled in Switzerland estimated that fatality rates in 1816 were twice that of average years, giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths.

The eruption of Tambora also caused Hungary to experience brown snow. Italy experienced something similar, with red snow falling throughout the year. The cause of this is believed to have been volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

In China, unusually low temperatures in summer and fall devastated rice production in Yunnan province in the southwest, resulting in widespread famine. Fort Shuangcheng, now in Heilongjiang province, reported fields disrupted by frost and conscripts deserting as a result. Summer snowfall was reported in various locations in Jiangxi and Anhui provinces, both in the south of the country. In Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, snow was reported in Hsinchu and Miaoli, while frost was reported in Changhua. []

Cultural effects

High levels of ash in the atmosphere led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, a feature celebrated in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. It has been theorised that it was this that gave rise to the yellow tinge that is predominant in his paintings such as "Chichester Canal circa 1828". A similar phenomenon was observed after the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, and on the West Coast of the United States following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.

The lack of oats to feed horses may have inspired the German inventor Karl Drais to research new ways of horseless transportation, which led to the invention of the Draisine or velocipede. This was the ancestor of the modern bicycle and a step towards mechanized personal transport. [ [ Histories: Brimstone and bicycles - being-human - 29 January 2005 - New Scientist ] ]

The crop failures of the “Year without Summer” forced the family of Joseph Smith to move from Sharon, Vermont to Palmyra, New York, precipitating a series of events culminating in the publication of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [ [ Discovery Channel, "Extreme Earth"] ]

In July 1816 "incessant rainfall" during that "wet, ungenial summer" forced Mary Shelley, John William Polidori and their friends to stay indoors for much of their Swiss holiday. They decided to have a contest, seeing who could write the scariest story, leading Shelley to write "Frankenstein", or "The Modern Prometheus" and Polidori to write "The Vampyre". [cite book | last =Shelley | first =Mary | authorlink =Mary Shelley | coauthors = | title =Frankenstein | publisher =Random House | pages =XV-XVI | isbn =0-679-60059-0]

The Year without a Summer also inspired Lord Byron to write his 1816 poem "Darkness".

The chemist Justus von Liebig, who had experienced the famine as a child in Darmstadt, later studied the nutrition of plants and introduced mineral fertilizers.

References in pop culture

The band Rasputina opened their Oh Perilous World album with a song about this period entitled "1816, The Year Without a Summer."

The Year Without a Summer is the premise for Mary Jane Auch's book "Frozen Summer," second in a three-part series of books about a pioneer family's struggles in the New York wilderness.

Comparable events

*The 1628-26 BC climate disturbances, usually attributed to the Minoan eruption of Santorini.
*Climate changes of 535–536 have been linked to the effects of a volcanic eruption, possibly at Krakatoa.
*Kuwae, a Pacific volcano, has been implicated in events surrounding the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
*Huaynaputina, in Peru, caused 1601 to be the coldest year in the Northern Hemisphere for six centuries.
*Laki, in Iceland, caused major fatalities in Europe, 1783–84.
* The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 lead to odd weather patterns in the United States. (In particular in the Midwest and parts of the Northeast.) An unusually warm spring was followed by a rather cool and mild summer in 1992.

ee also

* Little Ice Age


Additional reading

*BBC Timewatch documentary: "Year Without Summer", Cicada Films (BBC2, 27 May 2005)
*Henry & Elizabeth Stommel: "Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816, the Year without a Summer", Seven Seas Press, Newport RI 1983 ISBN 0-915160-71-4
*Hans-Erhard Lessing: "Automobilitaet: Karl Drais und die unglaublichen Anfaenge", Leipzig 2003

External links

* [| "Brimstone and Bicycles" by Mick Hamer of New Scientist, 29 January 2005]
* [ "Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death"]

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