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Year Without a Summer

Year Without a Summer
1816 summer temperature anomaly compared to average temperatures from 1971–2000
Volcano Mount Tambora
Date April 10, 1815
Type Ultra Plinian
Location Lesser Sunda Islands, Dutch East Indies
Impact Caused a volcanic winter that dropped temperatures by 0.4 to 0.7 °C worldwide

The year 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer (also the Poverty Year, the Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death[1]), because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F).[2] This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.[3] Evidence suggests the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest eruption in at least 1,300 years after the extreme weather events of 535-536. The Earth had already been in a centuries-long period of global cooling that started in the 14th century. Known today as the Little Ice Age, it had already caused considerable agricultural distress in Europe. The Little Ice Age's existing cooling was aggravated by the eruption of Tambora which occurred during its concluding decades.[4]


  • Description 1
    • North America 1.1
    • Europe 1.2
    • Asia 1.3
  • Causes 2
  • Effects 3
    • Cultural effects 3.1
  • Comparable events 4
  • In popular culture 5
  • See also 6
  • Footnotes 7
  • Further reading 8


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][6] The unusual climatic aberrations of 1816 had the greatest effect on most of New England, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe. Typically, the late spring and summer of central and northern New England and southeastern Canada are relatively stable: temperatures (average of both day and night) average between about 68 and 77 °F (20 and 25 °C) and rarely fall below 41 °F (5 °C).

North America

In the spring and summer of 1816, a persistent "dry fog" was observed in parts of the eastern U.S. 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".[7]

At higher elevations, where farming was problematic in good years, the cooler climate did not quite support agriculture. In May 1816,[1] frost killed off most crops in the higher elevations of New England and New York. 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."[9]

At the Church Family of Shakers in upstate New York, near New Lebanon, Nicholas Bennet wrote in May 1816, "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, everything had stopped growing. The Berkshire Hills had frost again on August 23, as did much of the upper northeast.[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]

In Cape May, New Jersey, frost was reported five nights in a row in late June, causing extensive crop damage.[12]

In July and August, lake and river ice was observed as far south as northwestern Pennsylvania. Frost was reported as far south as Virginia on August 20 and 21.[13] 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 those accustomed to long winters. The real problem lay in the weather's effect on crops and thus on the supply of food and firewood. Thomas Jefferson, retired from the presidency and farming at Monticello in Virginia, sustained crop failures that sent him further into debt. On September 13, a Virginia newspaper reported that corn crops would be one half to two-thirds short, and lamented that "the cold as well as the drought has nipt the buds of hope."[14] A Norfolk, Virginia Newspaper complained: "It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer. Easterly winds have prevailed for nearly three months past... the sun during that time has generally been obscured and the sky overcast with clouds; the air has been damp and uncomfortable, and frequently so chilling as to render the fireside a desirable retreat."[15]

Regional farmers did succeed in bringing some crops to maturity, but corn and other grain prices rose dramatically. The price of oats, 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). Crop failures were aggravated by an inadequate transportation network: with few roads or navigable inland waterways and no railroads it was expensive to import food.[16]


Cool temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in Britain and Ireland. 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 19th-century Europe.[8][17]

The effects were widespread and lasted beyond the winter. In western Switzerland, the summers of 1816 and 1817 were so cool, 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.[18]


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.[19]


The aberrations are now generally thought to have occurred because of the April 5–15, 1815, Mount Tambora volcanic eruption[20][21] 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.[22] The eruption had a volcanic explosivity index (VEI) ranking of 7, a supercolossal event that ejected immense amounts of volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere. It was the world's largest eruption since the Hatepe eruption in 180 AD.

Other large volcanic eruptions (with VEIs 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 stratosphere.[23]

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 °C. Smaller temperature drops were recorded from the 1812-1814 eruptions.[24]


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. An estimated 100,000 Irish perished during this period. A BBC documentary using figures compiled in Switzerland estimated the 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. In the summer of 1816 corn was reported to have ripened so badly, 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 north-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°N. In Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, snow was reported in Hsinchu and Miaoli, and frost was reported in Changhua.[25]

Cultural effects

Hong Kong sunset circa 1992 after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo

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. This may have given rise to the yellow tinge 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.[26]

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) Human migration 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.[27]

According to historian L.D. Stillwell, Vermont alone experienced a drop between 10,000 and 15,000 people, erasing seven previous years of population growth.[6] Among those who left Vermont were the family of Joseph Smith, who moved from Norwich, Vermont (though he was born in Sharon, Vermont) to Palmyra, New York.[28] 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.[19]

In June 1816, "incessant rainfall" during that "wet, ungenial summer" forced Mary Shelley, John William Polidori, and their friends to stay indoors at Villa Diodati overlooking Lake Geneva for much of their Swiss holiday.[29] 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[30] — 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

In popular culture

  • The cello rock group Rasputina has a song entitled "1816, The Year Without A Summer" on their 2007 album Oh Perilous World.
  • Vermont folk singer Pete Sutherland composed a song entitled, "1800 and Froze-to-Death," which was recorded in 2009 on the CD "Thufters and Through-Stones: The Music of Vermont's first 400 Years."
  • Why Vampires Never Die, a thesis written by Mexican Novelist and Director Guillermo del Toro in conjunction with American Writer Chuck Hogan also makes reference to the Summer of 1816 as the time frame during which our modern interpretation of a "Vampire" was first created.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Weather Doctor's Weather People and History: Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death, The Year There Was No Summer". Retrieved 2012-03-05. 
  2. ^ Stothers, Richard B. (1984). "The Great Tambora Eruption in 1815 and Its Aftermath". Science 224 (4654): 1191–1198.  
  3. ^ "Saint John New Brunswick Time Date". Retrieved 2012-03-05. 
  4. ^ "Environmental History Resources — The Little Ice Age, Ca. 1300 - 1870". Environmental History Resources. Retrieved April 17, 2015. 
  5. ^ Post, John D. (1977). The last great subsistence crisis in the Western World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.  
  6. ^ a b Evans, Robert Blast from the Past, Smithsonian Magazine. July 2002, p. 2
  7. ^ Oppenheimer, Clive (2003). "Climatic, environmental and human consequences of the largest known historic eruption: Tambora volcano (Indonesia) 1815".  
  8. ^ a b Oppenheimer 2003
  9. ^ Sarah Snell Bryant diary, 1816 Remarks, original at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Recollections of a Lifetime (New York: Auburn, Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1857), 2:78–79, quoted in Glendyne R. Wergland, One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793-1865 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), chapter 2.
  10. ^ Nicholas Bennet, Domestic Journal, May–September 1816, Western Reserve Historical Society ms. V:B-68, quoted in Wergland, One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793-1865, chapter 2.
  11. ^ William G. Atkins, History of Hawley (West Cummington, Mass. (1887), 86.
  12. ^ American Beacon (Norfolk, VA), Vol. II, Issue 124 (July 4, 1816), 3.
  13. ^ American Beacon (Norfolk, VA), September 9, 1816, 3.
  14. ^ "Crops," American Beacon(Norfolk, VA), September 13, 1816, 3
  15. ^ Columbian Register(New Haven, CT), July 27, 1816, 2.
  16. ^ John Luther Ringwalt, Development of Transportation Systems in the United States, "Commencement of the Turnpike and Bridge Era", 1888:27 notes that the very first artificial road was the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, 1792–95, a single route of 62 miles; "it seems impossible to ascribe to the turnpike movement in the years before 1810 any significant improvement in the methods of land transportation in southern New England, or any considerable reduction in the cost of land carriage" (Percy Wells Bidwell, "Rural Economy in New England", in Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 20 [1916:317]).
  17. ^ "The 'year without a summer' in 1816 produced massive famines and helped stimulate the emergence of the administrative state", observes Albert Gore, Earth in the Balance: ecology and the human spirit, 2000:79
  18. ^ The flood is fully described in Jean M. Grove, Little Ice Ages, Ancient and Modern (as The Little Ice Age 1988) rev. ed. 2004:161.
  19. ^ a b Facts – Year Without Summer Extreme Earth, Discovery Channel
  20. ^ Tambora, Indonesian Volcano (Tambora Volcano Part I): Tambora: The Year Without A Summer Anthony Tully, Indodigest, archived on June 15, 2006 from the original
  21. ^ "The Year without a Summer"
  22. ^ Sir Thomas Stammford Raffles: A History of Java; Black, Parbury, and Allen for the Hon. East India Company 1817; reprinted in the Cambridge Library Collection, 2010.
  23. ^
  24. ^ Berkeley Earth Releases New Analysis, 29 July 2012
  25. ^ Serious Famine in Yunnan (1815–1817) and the Eruption of Tambola Volcano Fudan Journal (Social Sciences) No. 1 2005, archived on March 26, 2009 from the original
  26. ^ "Brimstone and bicycles" New Scientist, January 29, 2005
  27. ^ Nettels, Curtis (1977). The Emergence of a National Economy. White Plains, NY: M. E. Sharpe.  
  28. ^ "Joseph Smith Jr. – Significant Events". Retrieved 2012-03-05. 
  29. ^ Why Vampires Never Die by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro The New York Times July 30, 2009; accessed 04-27-2015
  30. ^  

Further reading

  • Klingaman, William; Klingaman, Nicholas (2013), The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History, New York: St. Martin's Press, p. 338,  
  • Soon, William; Yaskell, Steven (June 2003), "Year Without a Summer", Mercury, retrieved 5 January 2015 
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