In 1872, near the end of his life, New York newspaperman Horace Greeley recalled a summer in his childhood that pushed his family to the brink of want and insolvency. It was the summer of 1816, when weather abnormalities reached catastrophic levels, producing a summer without summer, the typically warm months instead punctuated with snows and frost.
Greeley recalls waking on June 8th of that year to find an inch of snow blanketing his family’s farm in Amherst, New Hampshire. Frosts occurred in all the summer months, destroying crops and yielding only a ‘dubious harvest.’
The conditions Greeley described were general throughout the northeastern United States and felt as far south as Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia. Newspapers and diaries document the freakishly cold weather that rattled Americans, whose lives then depended almost entirely on what farms in their vicinity could produce. (Importing food from a distance was untenable before the age of rail.) Though New England was never a great breadbasket, its farms usually produced enough grains and vegetables to support the human population and some livestock farming.
That summer, persistent cold and frosts produced widespread crop failures. On each morning from June 8 through 10, frosts were reported throughout much of New England, causing the trees’ foliage to blacken. In July, a powerful Canadian cold front moved in, killing off tender plants such as beans, cucumbers, and squash, and raising the first fearful prospects of famine. Yet, according to meteorologist Lee Foster, who has analyzed the agricultural impact of the weather that summer, hardy crops such as wheat, rye, and potatoes managed to hang on.
In the middle of August, any prospect of a normal harvest vanished when frost again hit New England and upstate New York. Violent thunderstorms followed the cold, with still more frost striking around August 20 and 28, killing the corn and effectively ending the growing season.
Those in northern inland regions suffered the most. Newspapers recorded June snowfalls of 10 inches in Vermont and 7 inches in parts of Maine. Newly shorn sheep froze to death; fruit was destroyed. Farmers went about in coats and mittens. By the end of the summer, domestic animals were starving. Much of the human population was famished, too.
Throughout the affected areas, livestock were hastily slaughtered, creating a glut that drove down prices, while the price of grains, particularly corn, began skyrocketing. While families accustomed to subsistence agriculture were rich in tactics for making do in hard times, the poor harvests of 1816 left them in debt and without the cash or seeds needed to get started the next growing season. The bankruptcies and penury that followed in the wake of “summer that wasn’t” caused widespread land forfeiture and precipitated the first great out-migration of farmers to the virgin Midwest from eastern parts.
Scientific knowledge and understanding were then insufficient to account for the strange weather Americans were seeing, though some conjectured that sunspots or a solar ellipse (both recently observed) were a probable cause. Well-informed Americans understood, though, that the peculiar meteorological conditions they were experiencing were more than a local phenomenon. Their newspapers were reporting similarly catastrophic conditions across Europe, where cold and dark weather was producing dire food shortages, including Ireland’s infamous potato famine.
Today, meteorologists attribute the adverse atmospheric conditions of 1816 to a colossal volcanic eruption that occurred the previous year and half a world away. On April 8, 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano east of Java in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), began erupting. According to a new book by William Klingaman and Nicholas Klingaman, the explosion, a hundred times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, was the largest volcanic disturbance in the last 2,000 years and the deadliest in recorded time. Some 12,000 people living near Tambora died at once, with another 70,000 dying from the toxic fallout in Indonesia alone.
Blasts from the volcano, audible 800 miles away, blew 3,000 feet off the mountaintop, spewing millions of tons of ash, dust, and sulfur-dioxide gas into the sky, the lightest particles flying up more than twenty miles. Within twenty-four hours of the climactic eruption, an impenetrable cloud the size of Australia had formed. Particles in the stratosphere were slow to disperse, but winds gradually distributed them, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth. The impact on climate peaked in 1816, when the Northern Hemisphere felt its withering chill.
Americans today worry about global warming, but early Americans had more to fear from the cold. Mount Tambora’s eruption intensified conditions associated with the “Little Ice Age” that prevailed from around 1400 to 1850, when the sun’s lower output produced harsher winters, shorter summers, and more aridity—conditions that, like today’s weather abnormalities, created unanticipated hazards and human suffering. As for the future, who can say? The new global cooling may be just a volcano away.
Image: Hand-colored lithography by Currier and Ives, “Winter in the Country: A Cold Morning” (1863), in the Library of Congress. To go to the source, click here.