Friday, June 3, 2016

1816: The Year Without a Summer

Whatever side you land on the climate change debate, there’s no question recent summers have been different, with higher than normal heat one place and greater than usual rainfall another. But two hundred years ago, people had reason to question the weather as well.

1816 was known as the year without a summer. Temperatures around the globe were much cooler than usual. Each day dawned dark and stormy. Buffalo, New York, saw frost through July. New England saw snowfall in early June. It rained so long in Ireland, the potato crop failed. Drought spread. More crops died. People across Europe rioted. The New Hampshire Patriot reported that things were so bad the poor were eating nettles, wild turnips, and hedgehogs!

People everywhere scratched their heads. How had this happened? Some newspapers blamed “sunspots”—vapors from Earth that had been transported to the sun and blocked part of its rays for a time. One joked that the War of 1812 had made Canada so mad it was blowing cold wind south.

Scientists today point the finger at Mt. Tambora in Indonesia. The eruption in April 1815 was one of the largest ever recorded. More than 10,000 people died immediately; 80,000 more died of starvation afterward. The eruption threw dust and ash 25,000 feet into the atmosphere, where it spread around globe.

But the dreadful weather had unexpected consequences beyond the crop failure and drop. One expert suggested that the bicycle was invented in part because horses had become too expensive to feed. Another pointed to the fact that New England farmers began moving West in droves. Congress was voted out of office because the members had raised their own salaries in times of distress rather than somehow “fixing” the problem. And on a dreary sojourn in Switzerland, Mary Shelley entertained herself by writing Frankenstein and Lord Byron penned the poem “Darkness.”

At least the world received something from all that wretchedness!


QNPoohBear said...

I was just telling someone about 1816 today at the textile museum where I work. I wondered how or whether they were able to operate the water wheel to power the machinery if it was that cold. I hope they let me in the archive at some point so I can dig around and maybe find the answer.

Regina Scott said...

That would be fascinating, QNPoohBear! I imagine there were lots of things that were affected by the weather we might not think about.