3. The Tambora eruption was the largest in over two millennia
In 2010 an Icelandic volcano with the unfortunate name of Eyjafjallajokull (the name means “ice cap”) erupted with sufficient force to create an ash cloud which for several weeks disrupted aviation in Europe and crossing the Atlantic Ocean. That eruption was given a Volcanic Explosion Activity Index score (roughly equivalent to a Richter Scale rating for earthquakes as comparative rating) of 4. Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii and preserved it for history with an eruption which earned a 5. Tambora in 1815 rated a 7, and due to the method of calculation, the rating means that the April1815 disaster was more than 1,000 times more powerful than the 2010 Icelandic eruption. It was the deadliest volcanic eruption in human history, with records of the human toll left behind by officers of the British Navy and Empire, which include the horrific casualties from the tsunamis which ensued.
For those Americans who heard of the disaster, men of scientific minds and curiosity, the eruption was an interesting phenomena. Yet no one of the day was capable of predicting the ongoing disaster which the volcano would create the following summer, nor the economic calamity which would follow. The United States in the spring of 1816 was an agricultural society, with fewer than 7% residing in the cities, still for the most part concentrated along the east coast. Farm products fed American society at its tables, as well as American trade. Tobacco and cotton in the south were cash crops on which their planters relied for income, in the north and growing west wheat and corn became flour and whiskey, both traded liberally with European partners. America was just beginning to build roads and canals to move agricultural products to the eastern cities, from whence they could be moved overseas. America’s economy, just emerging from a costly war, was dependent on the farm.
4. American and British scientists observed the growing cloud in 1816, but did not know what it was.
In April, 1816, Congress adjourned after what it considered to have been a productive spring session (they voted themselves a pay raise as one of their final acts) just as American astronomers noted a growing dark spot which appeared to be on the surface of the sun. The British noticed it too, as well as other spots, which famed astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel attributed to gaseous disruptions beneath the sun’s surface. Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic noted that as the spots on the face of the sun spread, the brightness visible on earth seemed to fade. The observations coincided with what was becoming, across the United States and Europe, an abnormally cold and dry spring in many places, abnormally cold and wet in others, but consistently across the northern hemisphere, abnormally cold. This phenomena was occurring in the aftermath of what had been an unusually mild and dry winter, especially in New England, a region not known for mild winters.
As winter gradually eased into spring, the weather in the United States became, to the casual observer, fickle, a mood no stranger to March and April. Fruit trees in Richmond, Virginia, were no doubt beautiful that spring when icicles formed overnight on their blossoms. Then, as Jefferson noted, the spring in Virginia became unusually dry. By that time the fruit crop for the year, cherries, grapes, berries, apples, peaches, apricots, plums, all were inexorably damaged by the killing frost, and in many cases fruit trees themselves were threatened. In the unusually dry soil, plows broke earth not yet ready to receive new seed or seedlings, and what was planted received insufficient water to grow. Virginia in 1816 was embroiled in debate (among farmers) over climate change. Jefferson had argued that the climate had been changing for three decades, using the data he had recorded in his Farm Books. Others, less scientifically minded, began to suspect divine intercession in the affairs of men.
5. The disaster of 1816 unfolded slowly, though scientists had been aware of cooling trends for a decade
The second decade of the 19th century was the coldest in the recorded history of North America, the continuation of a trend which is now identified as the end of the period known as the Little Ice Age. Fed by numerous volcanic eruptions which clouded the atmosphere, the cooling was noticeable (as noted above, Jefferson was one proponent of ongoing climate change at the time) but not as yet catastrophic. The massive Tambora eruption added to the cooling effect of atmospheric particulates, greatly amplifying the cooling for the growing season in 1816. Farmers, then and now, are entirely reliant on the weather for successful crops. In 1816 the majority of crops around the world were grown on small farms, by farmers of little education beyond that needed to toil in the earth. Weather patterns were predicted largely based on folklore.
By the time farmers realized that their output for the year would be minimal, it was far too late to do anything about it, though there had been little they could have done anyway. Winter wheat crops could have thrived in some areas, and in some they did, but oats – vital to the economy in many ways – did not. Oats were needed not only for human consumption, but as fodder for the animals which provided the motive power for plows and wagons. Animals moved products to market in the cities, or to the rivers and streams which carried them to the warehouses. Farmers who relied on cash crops other than foodstuffs, largely cotton, tobacco, and indigo, found their livelihoods threatened as well. For example, a May cold front brought killing frost as far south as Tennessee, destroying the cotton crops. Farmers who had already planted their corn and wheat were forced to plow up the dead and damaged plants and start over, secure in the knowledge acquired from years of experience that warmer weather was coming. They were wrong.
6. Farmers in New England and New York pulled up stakes to seek better sites for their farms
As early as May, 1816, farmers in the New England states and their compatriots in New York wearied of the long battle with unpredictable weather, that spring representing the worst they had seen, began exploring alternatives in the lands to the west. Relieved of the Indian threat by the War of 1812, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan offered fertile soil, inexpensive land, wide waterways, and it was hoped more reasonable weather. That spring such better weather was not to be found. Ice still lined the Ohio shores of Lake Erie during the last week of May. The extended winter cold had also added to the drought which had been present with varying annual severity for nearly a decade, as Jefferson had noted in Virginia. Water which should have been spring rains remained snow in the mountains. Farmers fleeing to the west found conditions only marginally better than at home. Still, thousands resolved to make the trek and relocate by the end of the year.
As May ended and June began, the temperatures in the American northeast began a roller-coaster ride which would endure for the rest of the summer. At Williams College in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Hills, June 5 produced 83°. Salem, Massachusetts, saw 90° heat the same day. Farmers, no doubt cursing the sudden onset of summer heat, nonetheless welcomed the opportunity to save something of the growing season, despite the lateness of their start. The next day, and continuing on to the next, temperatures across New England dropped by 30° or more from their daytime high, frost appeared at night, and Middlebury, Vermont was buried under three inches of wholly unexpected snow. Other towns across the northeast escaped the snow and instead were blessed with rain, though of the freezing variety. On June 7, children in the Berkshires, whose parents had noted the sudden heat 48 hours earlier, enjoyed sledding in the again frozen hills.
7. The effects of the War of 1812 added to the financial disaster which befell farmers in 1816
War is often disastrous to economies, but armies need food, and that food is provided by farmers. During the War of 1812 the price of grain grew astronomically, leading farmers whose lands were far from the battle lines to increase their landholdings, confident in high prices for grain holding for the foreseeable future. Many in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio added to the size of their farms by borrowing against land already owned to purchase additional acreage. The harvest of 1816 would, in the calculations of many, make the purchase worthwhile. In practice the weather in 1816 brought about financial ruin. The series of cold waves which swept down from Canada that spring left fields unplanted, fodder for animals non-existent, or when available too expensive to purchase.
By mid-June, 1816, farms in western Pennsylvania were being abandoned with regularity, distraught farmers heading further west, away from the tax collector and the money lenders. Animals, particularly pigs, were left behind to fend for themselves. A great migration was underway in the United States, driven not so much by the promise of prosperity in the fertile lands of the west as by the demands of bankers and tax collectors in the east, intent on acquiring the money owed them. It was needed to fund investment in the newly emerging cities, including Pittsburgh, where the failure of crops was little felt during the summer of 1816, though its impact would be brutal in the following year.
8. Europe felt a similar disaster simultaneously, in the United Kingdom and on the continent
Europe in 1816 was entering its first full year without the threat imposed by the presence of Napoleon Bonaparte in France. The British Navy, nearly 800 ships strong at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was reducing itself rapidly, its sailors at last free to pursue more profitable employment. Farms across Europe had been the food supply for marching armies, which foraged liberally to supply themselves, paying with promissory notes of dubious value when paying at all. Hundreds of thousands of recently detached soldiers wandered across Europe, as its monarchs decided the fate of the peoples who had endured and supported thirty years of warfare. All of Europe longed for a restoration of trade and the availability of food. Yet, if anything, the spring of 1816 was worse in Europe than in North America.
Unlike the United States and Canada, which began the spring abnormally dry, Europe suffered deluges of rain, which followed a winter of abnormally high snowfalls. In Italy, silk was a major contributor to the economy, and the chill, damp spring played havoc with the harvest, which led to an increase in the cost of gentlemen’s neckwear and other necessities within a year. France and Belgium saw rains of monsoon strength, and the rare days with no precipitation were nonetheless damp and raw. Switzerland saw more than 100 days of rain in a period of 120. In France, citizens who opposed the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy – no matter the constitutional restraints – blamed the weather on the weather, and the problems it caused on the government of Louis XVIII, leading to the imposition of draconian anti-radical laws, which targeted clerics, academics, writers, and artists, in fear of a repetition of the mobs of 1789.
9. The European lack of a summer led to the creation of a cultural horror icon
In the late spring of 1816 a group of English society mavens journeyed, as was fashionable, to spend the season in Europe. Among them was Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, John Polidori (often credited as the creator of the modern vampire myth) and Claire Clairmont, Byron’s paramour. The group selected Geneva as their site to spend the summer, which proved an unfortunate choice, as the inclement weather forced them to spend the bulk of their vacation indoors, with only each other’s company for entertainment. Bored of card games and incessant conversation, it was Byron who suggested that each pen a tale of mystery or gothic horror for the entertainment of the others, who would also serve as its literary critics.
What stories were produced by the others are lost to history, though there is speculation that Polidori wrote a short story or novella which later became The Vampyre, using scenes extracted from the efforts of both Byron and Percy Shelley. Mrs. Shelley, after several false starts and hesitation no doubt caused by the august company, produced a novel, which she entitled Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Had Mrs. Shelley not been forced to endure the summer trapped by the weather in her Swiss quarters, surrounded by impressive literary talent, Boris Karloff would never have become famous for the bolts in his neck (which don’t appear in the novel). Mrs. Shelley attributed her tale to a vision which she called an “awaking dream” which came to her as she was unable to sleep during a rainy Swiss night.
In Europe, the rapidly failing crops in the early weeks of the summer of 1816 were but one problem. Another was the prognostications of astronomers, still convinced that the dark spots visible against the face of the sun were indications of extraordinary solar activity. Around the time of the summer solstice an Italian astronomer predicted the activity surrounding the sun was an indication that the life-giving orb was about to extinguish itself, bringing an end to life on earth. He was the first of many to sound the alarm. A Catholic priest in Naples announced that the earth was about to end in a hail of fire, descending from the dissolving sun. The Neapolitan authorities decided it best to incarcerate him. By mid-July, reports of the end times having arrived in England, the London Times editorialized that they were simply the tales of old women.
When citizens of the Belgian town of Ghent overheard the sound of a nearby regiment of cavalry sounding the evening retreat with their trumpets, some of the locals decided the sound was that of the Seventh Trumpet from the Book of Revelation, and their enlightened interpretation led to mass panic. “It was not without infinite trouble that the cause of this extraordinary terror was discovered”, reported the Times in London. It was only the beginning of religious panic which accompanied the weather disaster. According to the Times, the Italian predictions of the end of the world had, “produced great dread in the minds of some, so that they neglected all business”. Prophecies by Italians, no matter how dismal, carried little weight in the United States, where American bred seers were soon issuing dire prophecies of their own.
11. Ireland too, suffered from the natural catastrophe, adding to its national woes
During the summer, or rather the lack of a summer, in 1816 the Irish agricultural society, somewhat prejudicially believed to consist solely of potatoes, suffered enormous losses due to the weather. The chill damp produced a persistent blight which resisted all attempts to eradicate it, and the Irish wheat crop was decimated. The heavy rains ensured that the corn crop, vital to the Irish economy, was also destroyed. With over 80% of the Irish population dependent upon agriculture the economic effect of the crop failures was devastating. Public relief fell to the churches, which for the most part were ill equipped to handle the need, and ill-disposed to do so when the afflicted were Papists. The food crisis in Ireland and the passage of the Corn Laws in England added yet another ember to the smoldering fire which became known to history as The Troubles.
One aspect of the Irish troubles which may have been considered to be a good sign was the reaction of the British politician Robert Peel. Irish farmers, disturbed at the cost of shipping what little grain they had produced that summer to market, opted to convert it to whiskey instead. To protect the whiskey from the British tax man they stored it in a castle in County Clare. When local tax authorities asked Peel to send British artillery to reduce the castle walls, the secretary demurred, suggesting that tolerance and caution were better reactions to the situation. The bootleg whiskey was left alone, and vanished according to the whims of its makers. The Irish situation remained critical for years after the summer of 1816, with crops of corn and wheat failing to make a resurgence even when more clement weather appeared later in the decade.
12. In New England, milder weather in mid-summer offered false hope of a good harvest
Despite the problems inflicted by the weather in the late winter and spring, and the wild daily fluctuations of temperature which persisted throughout the summer, by early August hope in New England was that the harvests would be, if not bountiful, at least tolerable. The same was not true for Virginia and the middle states, Jefferson and Madison both lamented the loss of corn, wheat, and tobacco crops evident by the beginning of August. Besides being the year of no summer, 1816 was a presidential election year in the United States, and the populace, no matter how much it would have liked to, could not blame the weather on the President of the United States. It could however blame an inadequate government response to a national crisis on Congress, and it did so, using the recent raise Congress had voted itself as the focus of it anger.
James Monroe, yet another Virginia planter, veteran of the Revolution, and a rationalist who did not publicly proclaim his religious views, was the leading candidate for the office of President, which he won. His election ushered in what became known to historians as the Era of Good Feelings, though few such sentiments existed at the time of his election, especially regarding his reticence to pronounce his faith. He was also awarded an almost entirely new Congress. By late summer of 1816, with the presidential election underway, an emotional religious wave had struck the United States, fueled in many cases by preachers denouncing the less than religious behavior of America’s government and the divine retribution it had brought upon the nation from a perturbed Almighty. Churches in American cities (and British and French) began to offer prayers directed towards a change in the weather. The American Second Great Awakening began to expand rapidly.
13. The Second Great Awakening rejected rational explanations for the vagaries of the weather
The religious movement which became known as the Second Great Awakening began around the time George Washington became President in 1789, and rejected many of the ideas expressed by the founders of the American republic, including deism, rationalism, and Unitarianism. The movement grew slowly for a time, but in the latter part of the second decade of the 19th century it experience exponential growth in the regions of what was then the west; Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the same areas where many of the displaced and discouraged farmers of New York and New England had emigrated in search of a new start. Camp meetings and revivals condemned the evil ways of the decadent and less than god-fearing east, and exhorted a new start in the promised land of the west.
Among the sins of the east which were being punished by an angry god (according to the evangelists) was that of slavery, and from the seeds of the Second Great Awakening American abolitionism took hold. The disastrous growing season of 1816 was followed in 1817 and 1818 by somewhat better harvests, indications to the faithful in the new lands that they had been right, and were thus receiving their just reward. The Second Great Awakening continued throughout the first half of the 19th century, and as a result fundamentalist Protestantism flourished, and the wholly American image of what came to be known as the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant took form. To many, it was the return to Christian fundamentalism, born out of the hardy displaced farmers of the Northeast, who saved America from its own folly at the beginning of the 19th century.
14. August brought an end to the brief hopes of New England farmers
By mid-July temperatures in the New England states, though still surprisingly low in the evening hours, had stabilized to the point that four consecutive warm weeks occurred, running into mid-August. Farmers began to hope – an eternal aspect of farming – the summer, having started so late, would extend itself into October. Late crops were planted. Hay and clover were planted to be set aside to feed livestock through the coming New England winter. Then, on August 13 an overnight frost struck across Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, extending into upstate New York. The next night the temperatures were even colder, the frost harder, and freezing rain followed the next day. On August 18 in Connecticut, the temperature hit 92°.
Two days later frost was reported in Albany, New York; snow fell in the Green Mountains and the temperature dropped more than 30 degrees in a matter of hours in Keene, New Hampshire. The sudden chill was not limited to New England, Cincinnati, Ohio suffered a killing frost which wiped out grape harvests, so did central Kentucky. At Monticello Jefferson wrote to Albert Gallatin that the August frost had “killed much corn over the mountains”. Jefferson estimated that the corn crop across the mid-Atlantic states had been reduced by two thirds, and that the tobacco crop had been even harder hit. Faced with the loss of taxes on crops, the states of New Hampshire and Vermont were in effect bankrupt. On August 29 both North and South Carolina suffered heavy frosts, though a North Carolina farmer reported the frosts, “killed nothing, as all was dead before”, referring to crops which had not survived the summer-long drought.
15. An explosion of Irish immigration to the United States marked the end of the summer of 1816
During the year which preceded the year with no summer, just under 2,000 Irish asked permission of the British government to leave Ireland for the United States (which then had no immigration limits upon them). In August, 1816, as the ravages of the weather and the inability of the British government to mount an effective response took hold, more than 700 Irish applied for permission to leave in just one week. Nearly all of them were from the northern counties, then known collectively as Ulster, today Northern Ireland. Robert Peel, then Chief Secretary for Ireland, hated to see the Protestant Irish decamp for the United States, that “not only should Ireland lose so many industrious and valuable inhabitants but that the United States of America should reap the advantage”, he found detestable.
The British government increased duties on American shipping as a response to the Irish exodus, which made it financially unfeasible for poorer Irish Catholics (whom Peel loathed) to leave the country. Many of the Irish arrived in America with little money and no prospects, and the ability to travel to the promised lands of the west was denied them. Few farmers had need of hired workers due to the reduced harvests. The Irish huddled in the cities which welcomed them to America, the ports of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Some found work on the emerging American infrastructure. As doleful as conditions had been in Ulster, they were often worse yet in the depressed American cities, with jobs and food both scarce as a result of the collapse of the economy from the ravages of the weather on the world’s crops.
16. The harvests at the end of summer were particularly poor
Virtually all of the American landscape in crops north of Pennsylvania – in New York, New England, and eastern Ohio and in Michigan – was hit with a frost on September 27 which was severe enough to freeze the little water within the plants, a situation known as a black frost. It was more than two weeks earlier than average for such an event, and the first of several such frosts over the course of the next few days. It was the end of the autumn harvest for all of New England, and most of New York. The summer-long drought, which had begun in June, continued unabated. As autumn began forest fires, some from natural causes and some from the foibles of humanity, ravaged the New England landscape, driving away the game which would be needed to survive the winter in the absence of domestically produced meat.
The forest fires also burned the wood which New Englanders needed for heat in the coming winter, and even those woods not yet aflame were rendered too dangerous to enter to collect firewood as fires spread rapidly. New England’s corn crop was all but destroyed, and both families and their livestock were faced with the onset of a harsh northern winter without food nor heat. Nor was there sufficient corn to seed a crop in the spring of 1817. Northern newspapers, alarmed at the potential disaster widespread hunger would bring to New England, argued against the sale of what corn and other grains were harvested to European markets. At the same time, crop failures in France and across Europe made the sale of American grain to Europe highly lucrative for exporters. In both Europe and the United States, the situation was ripe for riots over the distribution of the meager American output from the 1816 growing season. Throughout both continents, the food riots came.
17. The summer of 1816 led to the invention of a new means of personal transportation
Other than walking, the most common means of personal transportation in 1816 was aboard a horse, in Europe and in the United States. Other means included being pulled by oxen and goats, mules and jackasses, and other types of animal based motive power. But animals needed fodder, and the adverse weather on both continents ensured that food for animals was scarce, making the animals themselves scarce and when available, expensive. Walking was still common across society, including over distances which would cause the modern citizen to hesitate. Walking between Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire was not uncommon, for example, as a matter of course while conducting routine business. The same mode of travel was common in Europe, though the merchant class and gentry were adverse to such travel (leading to the English use of pedestrian to also mean plodding or tedious).
A German tinkerer and inventor named Klaus von Drais developed a machine in which a person sat astride a wooden plank, to which wheels had been attached using axles. When the person attempted self-propulsion by thrusting the legs to and fro in the manner of walking, the wheels caused the distance travelled to greatly exceed that accomplished by the length of stride alone. He called it the “Laufmaschine”, which translates to running machine, and demonstrated it during the summer of 1817, when the difficulties of the preceding summer continued to prevail. Today, after decades of improvements and modifications, it remains the basic design of the bicycle. It enjoyed widespread popularity in Britain and Europe, particularly in France, though it was some years before the design, created as a response to the necessity created by the year without a summer, was accepted in the United States.
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.
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.
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: