Exactly two hundred years ago the entire Northern Hemisphere, notably the Northern US / New England as well as Europe and China, experienced huge famines as a result of the abnormally cold weather which caused crops to fail and unseasonal snow to fall.
History records 1816 as the Year Without a Summer. It’s also known as Poverty Year, the Summer that never was, or Eighteen Hundred and Freeze to Death.
The eruption of Mount Tambora, which climaxed on 10 April 1815, was to a large degree responsible for this weather aberration. It was an even bigger eruption than Krakatoa in 1883, and registers a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 7. The VEI scale is from 0 to 8 (8 would record a super-mega-eruption of the highest degree: the eruption of supervolcano Mount Toba 70 000 years ago might have been an 8). The Krakatoa eruption had a VEI of 6, while the eruptions of Mt St Helen’s and Vesuvius had VEIs of 5.
Mount Tambora was the highest peak in the East Indies at 4300 m. It awakened from its restless sleep in 1812 and its rumblings increased in intensity until the climax of 10 April 1815 when a 24 hour long eruption obliterated the Sumbawa landscape and ejected about 100 cubic kilometres of magma into the atmosphere: enough to cover Greater London to a depth of 0.5 metres. The sounds of Tambora tearing itself apart were heard up to 2000 km away: not as loud as Krakatoa but a greater eruption in terms of the quantity of volcanic matter hurled into space.
About sixty million tons of sulphur dioxide, which converts to sulphuric acid, found its way into the stratosphere. A thin veil of dust particles and sulphuric acid obscured the sun.
Mount Tambora is situated on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia and this is all that’s left of the island today:
Several smaller volcanic eruptions throughout the world between 1812 and 1814 also added their contributions to the ash and sulphuric acid already lurking in the stratosphere.
Yet another factor causing the weird weather was the lowest sunspot activity on record, a period known as Solar Cycle 6 which lasted from December 1810 until May 1823.
The final cause was that this was the tail end of the so-called Mini Ice Age which began in the 14th century and ended in the early 19th century, during which temperatures were generally lower than usual.
Global temperatures for 1816 plummeted by an average of 0.4-0.7 C (0.7-1.3 F) and it was the second coldest year in 600 years. But because spring came fairly promisingly, followed by cold weather in May and June, it did far more damage because it was the midst of the growing season and the green shoots of crops were soon frozen and useless.
During May, unseasonal frost killed off food crops in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Snow was reported in Albany, the capital of New York and Dennysville, Maine on 6 June.
Lakes and rivers as far south as northwest Pennsylvania were iced up and frost was reported from Virginia on 20-21 August, normally the height of summer. Extreme temperature swings, from 35 C to just above freezing within a matter of hours, caused much damage to crops, resulting in immense shortages and sky-high prices. Rail transportation from the Midwest wasn’t yet developed and people were dependent almost entirely on local supply, which made the problem much worse.
The price of corn and other grains rose dramatically. Oats increased from $3.40 per cubic metre to $26 per cubic metre. Only about a quarter of the corn produced was suitable for consumption.
Ex-president Thomas Jefferson, farming at Monticello and already in debt, spiralled even deeper into poverty as a result of the atrocious weather. Today it’s hard to imagine a former president so deep in debt, but in those times money wasn’t such a big factor in politics and so leaders were selected on merit rather than bank balances and monetary clout.
Thousands of people left New England to seek a new life in the Midwest. Thus the Year without a Summer contributed a lot to the westward expansion of the US, which would also bring untold heartache to the Native American population as their land was gradually taken from under them.
Across the Atlantic in Britain, crops failed too, especially in Ireland and Wales, where families became refugees, taking to the road to seek nourishment. Germany and the rest of Europe fared no better and riots broke out in many European cities with arson and looting as desperate people sought relief.
Europe was still recovering from the destructive and expensive Napoleonic wars and the non-existent summer added to the problem. Major rivers such as the Rhine came down in flood.
The situation was so bad in Switzerland, which has the reputation of being so picture perfect, that the government had no choice but to declare a national emergency. Their summers of 1816 and 1817 were so cool that an ice dam formed below the Gietro Glacier, which disastrously collapsed in June 1818 despite engineer Ignaz Venetz’s diligent efforts to have it drained.
Historian John Post has described the 1816 famine as “Europe’s last, great subsistence crisis”.
In addition to the crop failures, a typhus epidemic in Ireland killed thousands.
Brown snow fell over Hungary and reddish snow in northern Italy, tinted by volcanic ash.
In China, the weather disrupted the monsoon season causing destructive flooding in the Yangtze valley, and the colder than usual weather killed off rice crops and trees, especially in the north.
Torrential rains in India contributed to a cholera outbreak which spread as far as Moscow, adding to the great misery indirectly caused by Tambora’s eruption. This cholera epidemic was one of the numerous factors which contributed to the eventual development of modern medicine.
The cooling effect of Tambora and the atmospheric debris it caused, lasted about three years, after which temperatures more or less returned to normal.
So the next time you feel you’ve had enough of winter, think of these poor folk. It’s equivalent to having a white Christmas in Johannesburg or Canberra.
On a lighter note: Other results of the Year without a Summer
Because of the incessant rain and darkness, Lord Byron and his literary friends including Percy Shelly and his wife-to-be, Mary, were confined indoors at their villa overlooking Lake Geneva and decided to have a contest to see who could come up with the scariest story. No doubt the miserable weather not only inspired Lord Byron’s poem Darkness, as well as a short story which was later used as a basis for Dracula, but Mary Shelley’s well known horror story Frankenstein. She was inspired by a very vivid waking dream which no doubt was brought on by the dark and threatening weather on the other side of the window, and fuelled her already fertile imagination.
The high price of oats made keeping horses prohibitively expensive for many. A German engineer named Karl Drais to develop the forerunner of the modern bicycle, known as a draisine or velocipede. To be honest, you might as well walk. The best thing about them is you won’t fall off…I doubt one would get very far in the Tour de France with one of these:
The unusually high levels of tephra in the atmosphere caused vivid yellow sunsets for some years afterwards, and such sunsets can be observed in some of J M W Turner’s paintings, notably Chichester Canal (1828).
A chemist named Justus von Liebig, who experienced the hard times in Darmstadt as a child, grew up to research and develop mineral fertilizers to improve crop yields.
While the rest of the northern hemisphere experienced plummeting temperatures, the Arctic region actually warmed up during this period, allowing British explorers to map the area and seek the elusive Northwest Passage. Thus nature always seems to achieve a balance during such times.
No doubt a supervolcanic eruption on a large enough scale could once again play havoc with the world’s weather, as has happened from time to time. The Toba super-eruption, 70-75 000 years ago certainly caused a global catastrophe which lasted for many years and affected life throughout our always volatile planet.
Luckily if we are still around at the next major eruption we would at least have some warning of such an event, as the Global Volcanism Programme, which falls under the Smithsonian Institution, keeps a close watch on all the world’s “hot spots” today.