The year without a summer

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This article is about the year 1816. For the Byron poem, see Darkness (poem).

The Year Without a Summer (also known as the Poverty Year, The Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death[1]) was 1816, in which severe summer climate abnormalities caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F),[2] resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.[3][4] Evidence suggests that the anomaly was caused by a combination of a historic low in solar activity with a volcanic winter event, the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years. The Little Ice Age, then in its concluding decades, may also have been a factor.[attribution needed]


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".[5] The unusual climatic aberrations of 1816 had the greatest effect on the northeastern United States, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe. Typically, the late spring and summer of the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada are relatively stable: temperatures (average of both day and night) average between about 68 °F (20 °C) and 77 °F (25 °C) and rarely fall below 41 °F (5 °C). Summer snow is an extreme rarity.

In the spring and summer of 1816, a persistent "dry fog" was observed in the northeastern US. 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.[6]

At higher elevations, where farming was touch and go in good years, the cooler climate did not quite support agriculture. In May 1816,[1] frost killed off most crops, on June 4 frosts were reported in Connecticut, and by the following day most of New England was gripped by the cold front.[7] On June 6, snow fell in Albany, New York, and Dennysville, Maine.[8]

Many commented on the phenomenon. Sarah Snell Bryant, of Cummington, Massachusetts, wrote in her diary, “Weather backward.” Samuel Griswold Goodrich said the summer of 1816 in Connecticut was the coldest of the century.[9]

At the New Lebanon, New York Church Family of Shakers, Nicholas Bennet wrote in May 1816 that “all was froze” and the hills were "barren like winter." Temperatures went below freezing almost every day in May. The ground froze solid on June 9. On June 12, the Shakers had to replant crops destroyed by the cold. On July 7 it was so cold that everything had stopped growing. The Berkshire Hills had frost again on August 23.[10]

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."[11]

Farther north, nearly 12 inches (30 cm) of snow was observed in Quebec City in early June, with consequent additional loss of crops—most summer-growing plants have cell walls which rupture even in a mild frost. The result was regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.

In July and August, lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania. 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.

The weather was not in itself a hardship for hardy Yankees accustomed to long winters. The real problem lay in the weather’s effect on crops and thus on the supply of food and firewood.

Farmers south of New England did succeed in bringing some crops to maturity, but maize and other grain prices rose dramatically. The price of oats,[12] for example, rose from 12¢ a bushel ($3.40/m³) in 1815, equal to $1.55 today, to 92¢ a bushel ($26/m³) in 1816 ($12.78 today).

U.S. areas suffering crop failures also faced an inadequate transportation network, with few roads or navigable inland waterways and no railroads; it was expensive to import food.[13]

Cool temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in Britain and Ireland as well. Families in Wales travelled long distances as refugees, begging for food. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland, following the failure of wheat, oats, 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 the 19th century.[8][14]

In China, the cold weather killed trees, rice crops, and even water buffalo, especially in the north. Floods destroyed many remaining crops. Mount Tambora's eruption disrupted China's monsoon season, 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 River Ganges in Bengal to as far as Moscow.[15]

In New York City, the temperature dropped to −26 °F (−32 °C) during the bitter winter of 1816-17. This resulted in a freezing of New York's Upper Bay deep enough for horse-drawn sleighs to be driven across Buttermilk Channel from Brooklyn to Governors Island.[16]

The effects were widespread and lasted beyond the winter. In eastern Switzerland, the summers of 1816 and 1817 were so cool 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.[17]


It is now generally thought[by whom?] that the aberrations occurred because of the April 5–15, 1815, volcanic Mount Tambora eruption[18][19] on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia (then part of the Dutch East Indies, but under French rule during Napoleon's occupation of the Netherlands), described by Thomas Stamford Raffles.[20] The eruption had a Volcanic Explosivity Index ranking of 7, a super-colossal event that ejected immense amounts of volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere. It was the world's largest eruption since the Hatepe eruption in AD 180. That the 1815 eruption occurred during the middle of the Dalton Minimum (a period of unusually low solar activity) may also be significant.

Other large volcanic eruptions (with VEI at least 4) around this time were:

These eruptions had already 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 atmosphere.

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 degree C. Smaller temperature drops were recorded from the 1812-1814 eruptions.[21]


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 the Year Without a Summer caused. It is estimated that 100,000 Irish perished during this period. A BBC documentary using figures compiled in Switzerland estimated that 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 was significantly advanced in New England and the eruption caused the crop to fail. It was reported that in the summer of 1816 corn ripened so badly 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 also caused Hungary to experience brown snow. Italy's northern and northern-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 degrees latitude. In Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, snow was reported in Hsinchu and Miaoli, while frost was reported in Changhua.[22]

Cultural effects

High levels of tephra in the atmosphere led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, a feature celebrated in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. It has been theorised that it was this that gave rise to the yellow tinge that is predominant in his paintings such as Chichester Canal circa 1828. Similar phenomena were observed after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and on the West Coast of the United States following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.

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.[23]

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 what is now western and central New York and the Midwest (then the Northwest Territory) in search of a more hospitable climate, richer soil, and better growing conditions.[24] According to historian L.D. Stillwell, Vermont alone experienced a drop of between 10,000 and 15,000 people, erasing seven previous years of population growth.[5] Among those who left Vermont were the family of Joseph Smith, who moved from Sharon, Vermont, to Palmyra, New York.[25] This move precipitated the series of events that culminated in the publication of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[15]

In July 1816 "incessant rainfall" during that "wet, ungenial summer" forced Mary Shelley, John William Polidori, and their friends to stay indoors for much of their Swiss holiday. They decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story, leading Shelley to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Lord Byron to write "A Fragment", which Polidori later used as inspiration for The Vampyre[26] — a precursor to Dracula. In addition, Lord Byron was inspired to write a poem, Darkness, at the same time.

Justus von Liebig, a chemist who had experienced the famine as a child in Darmstadt, later studied plant nutrition and introduced mineral fertilizers.

Comparable events

See also


Further reading

  • BBC Timewatch documentary: Year Without Summer, Cicada Films (BBC2, 27 May 2005)
  • Willie Soon and Steven H. Yaskell: Year without a Summer, Vol. 32, # 3 May / June, Mercury (Astronomical Society of the Pacific) 2003
  • Hans-Erhard Lessing: Automobilitaet: Karl Drais und die unglaublichen Anfaenge, Leipzig 2003
  • Henry Stommel and Elizabeth Stommel: Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816, the Year without a Summer, Seven Seas Press, Newport RI 1983 ISBN 0-915160-71-4
  • The Story of the Year of Cold, by Dozier, Lou Zerr Press, 2009

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