The Year Without A Summer

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Podcast Transcript

In 1816, the world experienced something that it had never seen before. All over the Northern Hemisphere in Europe, Asia, and North America, summer never came.

…or at least it didn’t in any way which it did before. 

It caused chaos and misery all around the world. 

Learn more about 1816, the year without a summer, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When I say that the year 1816 had no summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it obviously was summer as far as the tilt of the Earth and the length of the day goes.

So, if the Earth was doing its normal thing, why was this particular season in this particular year so different?

It had to do with two unfortunate coincidences which happened to occur at the same time. One of them was major and one of them was minor.

The minor event was known as the Dalton Solar Minimum.

I’ve talked before about Milankovitch cycles and how the orbit and tilt of the Earth have several different cycles that it goes through. 

The other thing which has cycles is the sun. It goes through periods of solar activity called solar maximums and solar minimums. During a solar maximum period, which we are just leaving as I’m recording this, there are more solar flares and sunspots. During a solar minimum, there is very little solar activity. 

These periods tend to go in 11-year cycles and they can influence the Earth’s climate. Higher temperatures during solar maximum and lower temperatures during solar minimum. The effect isn’t huge, but it is real.

1816 was during a solar minimum. 

The really big thing which happened on top of this was the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in April 1815. 

I’ve done a previous episode on the Mount Tambora eruption, but the short version is that Mount Tambora was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history….by a wide margin.

The eruption threw millions of tons of ash, sulfur, and particulate matter into the atmosphere where it stayed suspended for over a year and eventually spread around the globe.

This was in addition to the residual particulate matter in the atmosphere from the 1814 eruption of Mount Mayon in the Philippines, and several other volcanoes that erupted in 1812 and 1813.

What is the significance of particulate matter in the atmosphere? It blocks sunlight and lowers temperatures. 

In the spring of 1816, there were already reports of a haze in the sky and unusually red sunsets. These red sunsets were reflected in the paintings which were painted during this time. The haze was so thick that people were able to look directly at the sun to observe sunspots.

The reports from people all over the world this year told the same story. The problem wasn’t the ability of people to adapt to the lower temperatures. The people who suffered the most from this also tended to have serious winters.

The real damage was what happened to crops. 

When temperatures dip below freezing, most plants, especially plants that normally only grow in the summer, die. Temperatures don’t have to dip below freezing very long for an entire crop to be destroyed. 

In New England, it was reported that temperatures in May of 1816 dipped below freezing every single day that month and that all the crops planted in May died. 

On June 6th, the town of Albany, New York was covered in snow. 

Frozen birds were reported dead in farm fields in June. Birds that normally would have migrated south for winter were stuck somewhere they shouldn’t have been.

One town in New Jersey reported five consecutive days in June with frost.

There were frosts that occurred in July and August in several northern states and in Canada

Ice was reported on rivers and lakes in northern Pennsylvania in July and August.

It is no surprise that people in New England dubbed the year Eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death.

Dendochronologists who study tree rings can spot the summer of 1816 because there was basically no growth in trees. 

It wasn’t that temperatures didn’t reach normal summer levels. They occasionally did. On June 22 it reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit in Salem, Massachusetts, but then the next week temperatures dropped to the 40s with dips below freezing.  

The net effect of these constant frosts was an agricultural disaster. Many places had absolutely no crops to harvest whatsoever. Places that did manage to harvest something, only grew a fraction of what they used to. 

On top of the cold temperatures, precipitation patterns changed and much of the northern United States experienced a drought, which resulted in wildfires and even more smoke and particulate matter. 

People resorted to scavenging whatever they could eat. There were reports of people eating raccoons and pigeons. Some crops such as rye and some wheat did manage to grow as they were more frost-resistant, but they were still stunted.

One man, Reuben Whitten of Ashland, New Hampshire, had the fortune of having a farm on the southern facing slope of a hill that was kept relatively warm. He managed to eke out a crop of 40 bushels of wheat which kept his family and his neighbors alive through the winter.

When he died in 1847, his neighbors erected a tombstone for him which documented his heroics in keeping famine at bay that summer.

Food prices skyrocketed. In 1815, the price of a bushel of oats was 12¢. In 1816, it rose to 92¢. Moreover, food that was available in southern states couldn’t easily be brought north because everything was still transported by horse at this time.

Many people in New England abandoned their farms and began to migrate westward, into what we call today the Midwest. This was one of the reasons for a mass westward expansion in the United States. This westward movement of people was in large part responsible for Indiana and Illinois became states in 1818.

However, I’ve only talked about North America so far. This problem was global. 

In Europe, they were still reeling from years of Napoleonic wars when the summer of 1816 occurred. 

In Europe, they didn’t just experience the cold weather that North America suffered, they also had to deal with heavy rains and flooding. 

Harvests were destroyed all over northern Europe with famine setting in most countries including Ireland, England, and Germany.

In many respects, Europe may have had it worse than North America because of the higher population density. In sparsely populated America, people could still hunt and fish to get food. That was difficult to impossible to do in Europe. 

As in North American, food prices rose, and there was a mass migration. This time, Europeans moved to the Americas. This was to be the last ever famine in continental Europe. 

In Switzerland, one glacier developed a glacial dam holding back a deluge of water. Eventually, the dam broke, killing 40 people. 

Because of the famine, a typhus epidemic broke out which spread throughout Europe for three years. 

Riots were widespread in England, France, and Germany as people demanded food. 

Asia also suffered in 1816. 

As in Europe, China experienced extremely heavy rainfall which caused the Yangzee river to flood, killing thousands.

Northern provinces experienced the same late frosts and snowfalls as elsewhere. Rice paddies froze and water buffalo died in the fields. 

In the southwestern province of Yunnan, farmers shifted their crops to a more robust plant, poppies, which resulted in an enormous increase in the supply of opium.

In India, the problem wasn’t freezing temperatures so much as it was the delay in the monsoon season. 

When the rains came, they were torrential and caused flooding and an outbreak of cholera. 

Despite the global nature of this calamity, no one had a clue what was causing it. While there were supernatural explanations, this wasn’t the middle ages. Many rational people thought it might have had something to do with cutting down forests and burning wood and coal. 

Information traveled so slowly, most people had no idea that there was the largest volcanic eruption in history on the other side of the world

It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists learned enough about the effects of volcanic eruptions that they were able to piece together what happened in 1816. 

Total global temperatures on land that summer was estimated to have dropped a full 3 degrees celsius, which is a lot. 

While the eruption of Mount Tambora was the largest such event in recorded history, there have been other volcanic events with similar results, albeit not as severe. 

In 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines causing temperatures to drop below normal that year, and it also caused changes in precipitation patterns. 

Likewise, the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa caused temperatures to drop globally and also changed precipitation patterns.

However, none of these events has come close to what happened in 1816. 

The summer of 1816 isn’t given much attention in history textbooks, yet the conditions of that year set off a series of events that shaped the 19th century and that we still live with today.