The Year Without Summer; or, What Happened in 1816?

By Talia Vestri

With the rapid pace of today’s technologies, the news of any event happening anywhere in the world seems to travel at almost light speed to everywhere else. Whether through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or online journalism, the news of a missing jetliner in Southeast Asia or an earthquake in Japan can become common knowledge on the other side of the world almost instantaneously (unless, apparently, the event happens in Africa, but that’s an entirely different topic). Imagine, then, living in an era when the impact of a natural occurrence like a tsunami or hurricane would never be heard about for those who did not experience the phenomenon first hand—a time when news didn’t just travel more slowly, but sometimes didn’t travel at all. 
It’s a paradigm unimaginable to even those of us who grew up in the pre-Internet decades, since the circulation of newspapers and round-the-clock television news cycles have still long been able to allow events from Antarctica to Siberia to permeate into our North American living rooms. Today, while we struggle to understand the effects of increasing global warming and climate change on weather patterns and natural disasters, we at least have an inkling of the kind of information that might link the butterfly flapping its wings in Tibet to the next hailstorm in North Dakota. As we continue to bundle up this winter and brace ourselves against another month or more of dreary clouds, frozen temperatures, and even blizzards, let’s step back for a moment to imagine what it might have been like to experience such cold and miserable weather at a time when it was least expected—snowstorms in June, darkness at noon in July, autumnal temperatures at the peak of August.
The moment I’m referring to resides in the summer of 1816—a summer that has been nicknamed for its dearth of summer-ness as “the year without summer.” While Romanticists may be familiar with the phenomenon of this “year of darkness,” I recently stumbled upon a fascinating study on these post-Waterloo years, and here offer a brief glimpse at the meteorological and cultural phenomena that accompanied this so-called year without sun.
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It was April 5, 1815, when Mount Tambora first exploded. sumbawa island
Located on Sumbawa island in Indonesia, the volcano was heard by British officials stationed hundreds of miles away. It sounded to them like distant cannon fire, and some ships even began scouting for pirates, preparing for a fight. The explosions continued for several days as volcanic ash spewed into the sky, leaving local areas cast in darkness. But it was not until five days later that the mountain put on its real show:

“Around seven o’clock on the evening of April 10, Mount Tambora erupted once again, this time far more violently. Three columns of flaming lava shot into the air, meeting briefly at their peak in what one eyewitness termed ‘a troubled confused manner.’ Almost immediately the entire mountain appeared to be consumed by liquid fire, a fountain of ash, water, and molten rock shooting in every direction. Pumice stones—some walnut-sized but others twice the size of a man’s fist—rained down upon the village of Sanggar, nineteen miles away. After an hour, so much ash and dust had been hurled into the atmosphere that darkness hid the fiery mountaintop from view.” (7)

Air temperatures increased rapidly as hot lava and ash clouds heated the surroundings; as this hot air rose upwards, colder air swooped in below, knocking down trees and houses with unexpected ferocity. Nearby villages were completely destroyed; 12,000 local natives died in the first twenty-four hours after the explosion, as ash and liquefied rock combined with 1,000-degree temperatures to knock out all life forms in the surrounding areas. The top three thousand feet of the volcano were also destroyed with the explosion, resulting in a three-mile-wide crater that now sits at the top of the mountain.
Chunks of rock were thrown thousands of miles—in October, the British ship Fairlie recorded discovering a pumice-iceberg still floating in the ocean nearly 2,000 miles away. This was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in recorded history; while Vesuvius and Mount St. Helens earn a mere “5” rating on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, Tambora ranks a “7.”
Local levels of destruction were horrific, yet still worlds away from Napoleonic Europe. By the time a heavy, “flesh colored” snow was showering down on Italy in December 1815, some news of the Tambora explosion had reached Europe, but no one knew that the two events should, or even could, be related.
Over the course of the next year, an aerosol cloud spread from Mount Tambora to cover the entire globe, affecting temperatures and weather patterns for the next several seasons. The aerosol cloud created by the explosion lowered global temperatures, and in the northern hemisphere the year 1816 was cooler by approximately three degrees, making it the second-coldest year on record since 1400. The volcano’s detritus became trapped in the upper atmosphere, creating a lasting global impact on weather patterns and temperatures.

Map showing levels of volcanic ash fall from Tambora's explosion
Map showing levels of volcanic ash fall from Tambora’s explosion

Tambora’s eruption had cast 55 tons of sulfur-dioxide gas twenty miles into the stratosphere, where it combined with hydroxide gas to form 100 million tons of sulfuric acid. This acid created millions of droplets that were then suspended in an aerosol cloud that encircled the globe; the strong jet streams pushed the cloud to circumnavigate the girth of the planet in just two weeks following the eruption. While the cloud spread across the equator in just a fortnight, it took nearly two months for it to then move northward and southward to reach both of the poles. In just a few months’ time, though, the entire atmosphere of the earth had been covered by a Tambora-induced cloud of darkness—a cloud that was locked into the stratosphere where water droplets do not form, and thus the particles could not rain themselves out of the atmosphere.

“By the winter of 1815-16, the nearly invisible veil of ash covered the globe, reflecting sunlight, cooling temperatures, and wreaking havoc on weather patterns.”

While we’ve heard about this cold, dark summer inspiring the gothic storytelling affair that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Byron’s “Darkness,” we are probably less aware of the ongoing effects of this meteorological event on the weather and agriculture in both Europe and North America over the coming next years. But residents in these locales were certainly feeling the effects. Farmers in New England, for example, recorded snow on the ground in May and June, putting the spring planting season off until it was detrimentally late.

“On May 12, strong winds swirling down from Canada brought snow and freezing temperatures to New England, killing the buds and leaves on fruit trees. Two days later, Albany, New York, reported that ‘the ground was covered with snow.’” (48)

Mother Nature seemed to be having some nasty mood swings. Vermont saw several bouts of snow in late May. On June 5, the Boston area sweltered through temperatures in the upper 80s; on June 6, Montreal and Quebec had a snowstorm. The jet stream had changed its path, and a minor polar vortex swung through the northeast that summer. New England experienced an almost 60-degree drop from June 5 to June 7—and almost all of the plantings that season were wiped out. From Maine to Pennsylvania there were recordings of snowfall, frost, and freezing temperatures.
While American farmers on the east coast suffered unseasonable lows, Europeans did not fare much better. Freezing rains accompanied a low-pressure system that moved through the continent, casting June into an “atmosphere” that, as the Lancaster Gazetteer reported on June 8, “still seems as cold as in March or November” (91). France, Germany, and England were pelted by unseasonably cold rains. While Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Polidori, and Claire Clairmont were holed up together at Lake Geneva, Mary noted of the storms:

“We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens, and dart in jagged figures upon the piny heights of Jura, dark with the shadow of the overhanging clouds.” (97)

While gloom soaked into the souls of the Shelley clan, all of Europe fell into a kind of kindred despair. For the rest of the summer, rain and wet lingered across the continent, and rivers were at their highest levels in decades. Everyone noticed the climatological shifts, but no one understood why.
Across the Continent, parishioners flocked to churches in hopes of an answer as to why God had cast them into such darkness, praying against the end of days:

“ ‘In France as well as in this country, and generally throughout Europe,’ acknowledged The Times, “the prediction of the mad Italian prophet, relative to the end of the world, had produced great dread in the minds of some, so that they neglected all business, and gave themselves up entirely to despondency.” (117)

The apocalypse must be nigh, they figured, for there was no other apparent explanation. No one had any way of comprehending that the doom and gloom they were experiencing was the result of Tambora’s eruption, for Europeans had hardly heard about the seismic event at all. And they certainly could not associate these drastic shifts in weather to be the result of a volcano that had exploded many months before and tens of thousands of miles away.
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So while those of us in the Northeast and the Midwest brace ourselves against yet another pounding of snow and blizzard-like winds this week, let us be thankful that, if we were to ever have such wintry weather batter us in the summertime, we (or at least, scientists much smarter than us) might be able to find out why. And let us recall that at the same time as Byron and Shelley were entertaining themselves at Villa Diodati, the entire Western world was struggling through a year of harsh weather, unexplained meteorological oddness, failed crops and famine, unmanageable spikes in food prices, and a general bout of unrest and depression—and that all of it had little to do with Napoleon.
Klingaman, William K., and Nicholas P. Klingaman. The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

One Reply to “The Year Without Summer; or, What Happened in 1816?”

  1. This is an excellent summary of the year without summer. I am researching a group of sailing ships including the Fairlie. The story of her sailing near a pumice ‘berg’, more like seaweed clumps, 2000 miles from Mt Tambora is fascinating, and well worth including as a wonder of the times and the seas. Well done.

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