1816, a volcanic winter event during the Little Ice Age
1816, a volcanic winter event during the Little Ice Age
The year 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer (also the Poverty Year and Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death) because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.72–1.26 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.
The Year Without a Summer was an agricultural disaster. Historian John D. Post has called this “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world”. The climatic aberrations of 1816 had greatest effect on most of New England, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe.
In China, the cold weather killed trees, rice crops, and even water buffalo, especially in the north. Floods destroyed many remaining crops. The monsoon season was disrupted, resulting in overwhelming floods in the Yangtze Valley. In India, the delayed summer monsoon caused late torrential rains that aggravated the spread of cholera from a region near the Ganges in Bengal to as far as Moscow. In Japan, still exercising caution after the cold weather related Great Tenmei famine of 1782–1788, the cold damaged crops, but no crop failures were reported, and there were no adverse effects on population.
These eruptions had built up a substantial amount of atmospheric dust. As is common after a massive volcanic eruption, temperatures fell worldwide because less sunlight passed through the stratosphere.
According to a 2012 analysis by Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature, the 1815 Tambora eruption caused a temporary drop in the Earth’s average land temperature of about 1 °C. Smaller temperature drops were recorded from the 1812–1814 eruptions.
The Earth had already been in a centuries-long period of global cooling that started in the 14th century. Known today as the Little Ice Age, it had already caused considerable agricultural distress in Europe. The Little Ice Age’s existing cooling was exacerbated by the eruption of Tambora, which occurred near the end of the Little Ice Age.
This period also occurred during the Dalton Minimum (a period of relatively low solar activity), specifically Solar Cycle 6, which ran from December 1810 to May 1823. May 1816 in particular had the lowest sunspot number (0.1) to date since record keeping on solar activity began. The lack of solar irradiance during this period was exacerbated by atmospheric opacity from volcanic dust.
Low temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in Britain and Ireland. Families in Wales traveled long distances begging for food. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland, following the failure of wheat, oat, and potato harvests. In Germany, the crisis was severe; food prices rose sharply. With the cause of the problems unknown, people demonstrated in front of grain markets and bakeries, and later riots, arson, and looting took place in many European cities. It was the worst famine of 19th-century mainland Europe.
The effects were widespread and lasted beyond the winter. In western Switzerland, the summers of 1816 and 1817 were so cold that an ice dam formed below a tongue of the Giétro Glacier high in the Val de Bagnes. Despite engineer Ignaz Venetz‘s efforts to drain the growing lake, the ice dam collapsed catastrophically in June 1818, killing 40 people.
In the spring and summer of 1816, a persistent “dry fog” was observed in parts of the eastern United States. The fog reddened and dimmed the sunlight, such that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. Neither wind nor rainfall dispersed the “fog”. It has been characterized as a “stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil”.
The weather was not in itself a hardship for those accustomed to long winters. The real problem lay in the weather’s effect on crops and thus on the supply of food and firewood. At higher elevations, where farming was problematic in good years, the cooler climate did not quite support agriculture. In May 1816,frost killed off most crops in the higher elevations of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, as well as upstate New York. On June 6, snow fell in Albany, New York, and Dennysville, Maine. In Cape May, New Jersey, frost was reported five nights in a row in late June, causing extensive crop damage.
At the Church Family of Shakers near New Lebanon, New York, Nicholas Bennet wrote in May 1816, “all was froze” and the hills were “barren like winter”. Temperatures went below freezing almost every day in May. The ground froze on June 9. On June 12, the Shakers had to replant crops destroyed by the cold. On July 7, it was so cold, everything had stopped growing. The Berkshire Hills had frost again on August 23, as did much of the upper northeast.
A Massachusetts historian summed up the disaster:
Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7th and 8th snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots … In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting. Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food. It must be remembered that the granaries of the great west had not then been opened to us by railroad communication, and people were obliged to rely upon their own resources or upon others in their immediate locality.
In July and August, lake and river ice was observed as far south as northwestern Pennsylvania. Frost was reported as far south as Virginia on August 20 and 21. 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. Thomas Jefferson, retired from the presidency and farming at Monticello, sustained crop failures that sent him further into debt. On September 13, a Virginia newspaper reported that corn crops would be one half to two-thirds short and lamented that “the cold as well as the drought has nipt the buds of hope”. A Norfolk, Virginia newspaper reported:
It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer. Easterly winds have prevailed for nearly three months past … the sun during that time has generally been obscured and the sky overcast with clouds; the air has been damp and uncomfortable, and frequently so chilling as to render the fireside a desirable retreat.
Regional farmers did succeed in bringing some crops to maturity, but corn and other grain prices rose dramatically. The price of oats, for example, rose from 12¢ per bushel ($3.40/m3) in 1815 (equal to $1.68 today) to 92¢ per bushel ($26/m3) in 1816 ($13.86 today). Crop failures were aggravated by an inadequate transportation network: with few roads or navigable inland waterways and no railroads, it was expensive to import food.
As a result of the series of volcanic eruptions, crops in the aforementioned areas had been poor for several years; the final blow came in 1815 with the eruption of Tambora. Europe, still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in the United Kingdom 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 and abnormal rainfall with flooding of Europe’s major rivers (including the Rhine) are attributed to the event, as is the August frost. A major typhus epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819, precipitated by the famine caused by the Year Without a Summer. An estimated 100,000 Irish perished during this period. A BBC documentary, using figures compiled in Switzerland, estimated that the fatality rates in 1816 were twice that of average years, giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths.
New England also experienced major consequences from the eruption of Tambora. The corn crop in New England failed. Corn was reported to have ripened so poorly that no more than a quarter of it was usable for food. The crop failures in New England, Canada, and parts of Europe also caused the price of wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk, and flour to rise sharply.
The eruption of Tambora caused Hungary to experience brown snow. Italy’s northern and north-central region 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, resulting in widespread famine. Fort Shuangcheng, now in Heilongjiang, reported fields disrupted by frost and conscripts deserting as a result. Summer snowfall or otherwise mixed precipitation was reported in various locations in Jiangxi and Anhui, located at around 30°N. In Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, snow was reported in Hsinchu and Miaoli, and frost was reported in Changhua.
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 toward mechanized personal transport.
The crop failures of the “Year without a Summer” may have helped shape the settling of the “American Heartland“, as many thousands of people (particularly farm families who were wiped out by the event) left New England for western New York and the Northwest Territory in search of a more hospitable climate, richer soil, and better growing conditions.Indiana became a state in December 1816 and Illinois two years later. British historian Lawrence Goldman has suggested that this migration into the Burned-over district of New York was responsible for the centering of the anti-slavery movement in that region.
An eruption of Huaynaputina, in Peru, caused 1601 to be the coldest year in the Northern Hemisphere for six centuries (see Russian famine of 1601–1603); 1601 consisted of a bitterly cold winter, a cold frosty late (possibly nonexistent) spring, and a cool wet summer.
An eruption of Laki, in Iceland, was responsible for up to hundreds of thousands of fatalities throughout the Northern Hemisphere (over 25,000 in England alone), and one of the coldest winters ever recorded in North America, 1783–84; long-term consequences included poverty and famine that may have contributed to the French Revolution in 1789.
The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa caused average Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures to fall by as much as 1.2 °C (2.2 °F). One of the wettest rainy seasons in recorded history followed in California during 1883-84.
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 led to odd weather patterns and temporary cooling in the United States, particularly in the Midwest and parts of the Northeast. An unusually mild winter was followed by an unusually cool, wet summer and a cold, early autumn in 1992 (cooler-than-normal July, August, September, and October in 1992). More rain than normal fell across the West Coast of the United States, particularly California, during the 1991–92 and 1992–93 rainy seasons. The American Midwest experienced more rain and major flooding during the spring and summer of 1993.
^“The ‘year without a summer’ in 1816 produced massive famines and helped stimulate the emergence of the administrative state”, observes Albert Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the human spirit, 2000:79
^The flood is fully described in Jean M. Grove, Little Ice Ages, Ancient and Modern (as The Little Ice Age 1988) rev. ed. 2004:161.
^Sarah Snell Bryant diary, 1816 Remarks, original at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Recollections of a Lifetime (New York: Auburn, Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1857), 2:78–79, quoted in Glendyne R. Wergland, One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793–1865 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), chapter 2.
^Nicholas Bennet, Domestic Journal, May–September 1816, Western Reserve Historical Society ms. V:B-68, quoted in Wergland, One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793–1865, chapter 2.
^William G. Atkins, History of Hawley (West Cummington, Mass. (1887), 86.
^American Beacon (Norfolk, VA), September 9, 1816, 3.
^“Crops,” American Beacon(Norfolk, VA), September 13, 1816, 3
^Columbian Register(New Haven, CT), July 27, 1816, 2.
^John Luther Ringwalt, Development of Transportation Systems in the United States, “Commencement of the Turnpike and Bridge Era”, 1888:27 notes that the very first artificial road was the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, 1792–95, a single route of 62 miles; “it seems impossible to ascribe to the turnpike movement in the years before 1810 any significant improvement in the methods of land transportation in southern New England, or any considerable reduction in the cost of land carriage” (Percy Wells Bidwell, “Rural Economy in New England“, in Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 20 [1916:317]).