1816- The Year Without a Summer

Dear Reader:

As we move into July….a predicted hot, hot, hot July with little relief from rain or other outdoor cooling opportunities…we forget that just a little over  two hundred years ago….parts of North America, Asia, and Europe were buried under ice and snow during the infamous summer of 1816.

Initially (especially right now) this might sound good….a great break in the summer for a real snowball fight, right?…But the implications were dire…leading to the question…could it happen again? And the answer is “Yes.”

There was no way that the people in the northern hemisphere had any way of knowing what was about to befall them….because the catalyst that turned summer into winter that year had started a year earlier with a volcano a world away.

A year prior, after months of rumbling, a colossal eruption occurred at Mount Tambora, on a small island in Indonesia. Millions of tons of ash and sulfurous gas went dozens of miles up into the stratosphere, creating a kind of dusty veil around the planet and plunging part of Asia in darkness.

It was nicknamed the “Year Without a Summer” and “Eighteen Hundred Froze to Death.”

Two hundred years ago, the U.S. Eastern Seaboard registered record-low temperatures. On June 6, 1816, six inches of snow fell across wide regions of New England. “The heads of all the mountains on every side were crowned with snow- the White Mountains were just that….white!” one area farmer wrote. “The most gloomy and extraordinary weather ever seen.”

A Connecticut clock maker remembered at the time having to wear an overcoat and mittens for much of the summer; another bookkeeper noted in his diary that “the vegetation does not seem to advance at all.” Frosts set in and crops failed. In Montreal, there were reports of frozen birds dropping dead on the city streets. Citizens of Vermont were forced to subsist on “nettles, wild turnips and hedgehogs.”

In the spring and summer of 1816, a persistent “dry fog” was observed in parts of the eastern United States. 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”. (* See title painting…done a couple years after the ‘summer-less” year so people would always remember the strange colors of the sky day and night.)

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.

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.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.

Thomas Jefferson,  retired from the presidency and farming at Monticello, 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 nipped the buds of hope”.

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.

But for all you Gothic horror story fans…the cold, foggy weather that historical summer forced a group of creative writers and poets inside a famous home where, out of boredom, they challenged each other to write something scary. Any guesses what two famous monsters were created during this time? How about Dracula and Frankenstein?

In June 1816, “incessant rainfall” during that “dark, dismal, ungenial summer” forced famous writers… Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Lord Byron, John Polidori (and friends)  indoors at the famous Villa Diodati overlooking Lake Geneva for much of their Swiss holiday.

During a three-day period the group decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story… leading Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein and Lord Byron to write “ A Fragment” which Polidori later used as inspiration for “The Vampure”  – a precursor to Dracula.

In addition, Lord Byron was inspired to write the poem “Darkness” in a single day. One line reads:  “When the fowls all went to roost at noon and candles had to be lit as at midnight.”

Today climatologists and meteorologists (who study weather trends over long periods of time)….say that the only breaks in the continuous warming trends affecting our planet presently come from unexpected volcanic eruptions that bring temporary cooling effects. (like what happened in North America, Europe, and parts of Asia in 1816.) However, as soon as the the ashed veil lifts…unfortunately the recent warming trends continue on tract.

So until tomorrow…the next time we complain about the heat…maybe it will help to remember the summer of 1816 or at least make us go grab a book…perhaps Frankenstein or Dracula? 🙂

“Today is my favorite day”  Winnie the Pooh

*And it IS the first day of July…the first day of the month….get ready…and say it!  RABBIT! Now I hope everyone has a wonderful month in spite of the heat…after all..it is summer…and July 4 was the best birthday present for all of us….Happy Birthday America! July always reminds us of freedom and sacrifice!



*Sammy the Cardinal decided to help me welcome in July with a stop-over and a wink when he came to the suet cage ….Thanks Sammy!




About Becky Dingle

I was born a Tarheel but ended up a Sandlapper. My grandparents were cotton farmers in Laurens, South Carolina and it was in my grandmother’s house that my love of storytelling began beside an old Franklin stove. When I graduated from Laurens High School, I attended Erskine College (Due West of what?) and would later get my Masters Degree in Education/Social Studies from Charleston Southern. I am presently an adjunct professor/clinical supervisor at CSU and have also taught at the College of Charleston. For 28 years I taught Social Studies through storytelling. My philosophy matched Rudyard Kipling’s quote: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Today I still spread this message through workshops and presentations throughout the state. The secret of success in teaching social studies is always in the story. I want to keep learning and being surprised by life…it is the greatest teacher. Like Kermit said, “When you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot.”
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