The Year with No Summer was a Brutal Shock for Half the World in 1816
The Year with No Summer was a Brutal Shock for Half the World in 1816

The Year with No Summer was a Brutal Shock for Half the World in 1816

Larry Holzwarth - August 25, 2019

The Year with No Summer was a Brutal Shock for Half the World in 1816
Lord Byron spent most of the summer of 1816 in Switzerland, where he wrote his poem Darkness based on the lack of sunlight. Wikimedia

18. Multi-colored snowfalls and the land of the midnight sun

The year without a summer offered memorable events which were recorded by writers and observers other than Thomas Jefferson and his multitude of correspondents. In Europe Lord Byron, who spent most of the summer months in Switzerland (which suffered monsoon like rains and abnormally cold temperatures for more than two years), observed that sunset, or rather the appearance of sunset, occurred near midday. Dreary skies never filled with morning light, and by early afternoon, darkness, no doubt aided by the shadows of the imposing Alps, had settled in. Byron’s apocalyptic poem was written during his stay in Geneva, describing the experiences of the last man on earth, watching the world fade away into darkness. Byron described the poem as having been written on a day when the “candles were lighted as at midnight” though it were only noon, despite the roosters already having retired to their roosts.

In Hungary, snowfall covered the mountains and rooftops, though the snow was brown instead of its usual white. In Italy, a similar event left red snow, the color of rust, covering the landscape. The high content of volcanic “ash” in the atmosphere left staggeringly beautiful orange tinged sunsets, inspiring painters throughout Europe to attempt to reproduce them on canvas, though the paintings failed to convey the human misery left by the lack of normal summer weather. That summer saw the worst (and to date last) of the great famines to strike the European continent in its recorded history. Combined with the typhus and cholera epidemics worsened by the incessant heavy rains and resulting floods, the summer of 1816 saw a mortality rate more than double what was normal, and is regarded as the cause of more than 200,000 deaths on the continent, as well as an additional 100,000 in Ireland.

The Year with No Summer was a Brutal Shock for Half the World in 1816
The monsoons, critical to agriculture in China and India, followed a different schedule than normal, and led to starvation and disease throughout Asia. Wikimedia

19. The weather was as fickle as it was extreme, leading to consequences still felt in some regions

During the summer months of 1816 both Europe and the United States suffered dramatically, but they were not alone. Merchants and businessmen on both continents were aware of the adverse circumstances being felt which were affecting their counterparts overseas. Such was not the case in less communicative Asia. China, India, and Japan were all affected. In China the annual monsoons, critical to their rice crops, were far heavier than usual, lasted longer, and destroyed the foodstuff which was critical to the survival of its people. Flooding in China swept away villages, roads, and other infrastructure, destroyed rice paddies, and led to widespread and deeply felt famine.

In India, the monsoons did not arrive at their normal time, creating adversely dry conditions and hunger. When they did arrive they were far heavier than those of a normal year, and heavy flooding occurred, conditions which bred a more virulent strain of cholera than in previous years. The germs proved more adaptable to the unusual weather than humans, and cholera spread across the subcontinent, watched with growing alarm by the British Raj. Through trading ships and caravans, the cholera spread to Africa and around the world, carried by the ships of the British Empire, and ravaging the unprepared local populations where it landed. The cholera pandemic spread across the Mediterranean, North Africa, India, and Asia, raging until roughly 1824, and claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people before it ebbed away.

The Year with No Summer was a Brutal Shock for Half the World in 1816
Cotton replaced tobacco as the prime crop of the American south after the loss of the tobacco crops in 1816. Wikimedia

20. The legacy of the year with no summer

Gradually, the food riots and rampant hunger in both the United States and Europe subsided, though neither 1817 nor 1818 produced what would in a normal year be considered bumper crops in many areas. The American Midwest blossomed as the nation’s breadbasket, while New England shifted over to a manufacturing economy. Cultural shifts occurred across Europe as well. New strains of disease, caused by viruses which mutated to adapt to the conditions of 1817-18, led to new studies of disease and its causes. Trade between British Canada and the United States changed, with the Americans importing logwood and pulpwood from the Canadian forests, and shipping fruit, grain, and manufactured goods to its neighbors to the north. British mills became dependent on American cotton, rather than that from farms in disease plagued Africa.

In China, farmers no longer able to grow rice or other grains profitably began to develop a new crop, which though inedible could be sold profitably, competing with that smuggled in by British traders. It was opium. In Virginia, Jefferson’s failed crops, which did not recover for several years, ensured that he would die hopelessly in debt. His record of the weather conditions for 1816, as well as for the years following, are part of the great legacy which he left the world, though an almost entirely forgotten one other than among climatologists and meteorologists. Most of the rest of the world has forgotten the year without a summer, content to assign it to the category of a meaningless discussion of the weather, which as everyone knows, can be talked about though nobody can do anything about it.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Jefferson’s Shadow: The Story of His Science”. Keith Thomson, 2012

“The Eruption of Mount Tambora”. Article, Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History”. William Klingaman & Nicholas Klingaman. 2013

“Blast From the Past”. Robert Evans, Smithsonian Magazine. July, 2002

“1816: The Year Without a Summer”. Entry, The New England Historical Society. Online

“The Year Without a Summer”. Derek Maroot, Vermont’s Northland Journal. Online

“History’s People: 1816 – The Year Without a Summer”. Rob Lukens, Chester County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society. 2014. Online

“Tambora” The Eruption that Changed the World”. Gillen Wood. 2014

“Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Villa Diodati”. Gary Buzwell, The British Museum. May 15, 2014. Online

“London Times”. July, 1816, online at London Times Newspaper Archives

“Sir Robert Peel: The Life and Legacy”. Richard A. Gaunt. 2010

“The Year Without a Summer: A Historical View”. C. Edward Skeen, Journal of the Early Republic. Spring, 1981

“Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America 1607-1977”. William G. McLoughlin. 1978

“Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 8 September 1816”. Thomas Jefferson, Online

“Robert Peel: A Biography”. Douglas Hurd. 2007

“Remembering 1816, when a monster volcano devoured summer”. Brian Mann, NCPR News. September 2, 2006. Online

“Year Without a Summer”. Chris Townsend, The Paris Review. October 25, 2016

“1816, the Year Without a Summer”. Melvyn Bragg (and guests), audio recording. BBC 4 In Our Time. Online

“Eruptions that Shook the World”. Clive Oppenheimer. 2011