This year marks the 200th anniversary of “the year without a summer.” Since we’re having quite the opposite this year, it’s a good time to make comparisons with a unique summer with historically extraordinary bad weather.
The summer of 1816 was a terrible time for farming and a worse time for humanity in many parts of the world. The culprit was Indonesia’s Mount Tambora and its cataclysmic eruption the previous year.
Tambora’s explosive eruption was the worst in recorded history, worse than the better-known Krakatowa in 1883. Over the course of two weeks, Tambora killed more than 70,000 people. We’re not certain how many thousands more died due to its aftereffects.
Following the eruption, a volcanic winter (similar to a nuclear winter) developed, in which much sunlight was reflected back into space initially by huge amounts of ash. A good deal of the ash settles fairly soon in such cataclysms, but this is followed by the production of an enormous volume of sulfur dioxide, which converts into sulfuric acid aerosols. These linger in the atmosphere for a couple of years and block incoming solar radiation. The volcanic winter set the stage for an even worse volcanic summer.
Here are some of the disastrous, as well as some of the fascinating, results that followed in the growing season.
- The aerosols continued to cool the planet, producing frosts that lasted into summer months and measurable snow on several occasions in the northeast, especially in New England in June.
- Hay and oats came to cost six times their normal amount.
- Vast swaths of the corn and wheat crops failed.
- Many villages approached true famine, with only a few south-facing farms managing a salvageable crop to stave off total starvation in their communities.
- Some crops appeared to be headed toward a harvest, but an August hard frost and freeze wiped them out before they could be brought in.
It’s not that there were no warm days. There were some, but only a relative few. When some warmer days brought relief, it never lasted very long. Salem roasted with a high of 101 on June 22, but daytime highs were back to the 40s for three days in early July.
Famine, sometimes worse than what occurred in New England, hit parts of Europe as well, with countless people dying. The weakened population was left more vulnerable to what became a horrific cholera epidemic. In this country, the agricultural breakdown is credited to kicking off large migrations to the west, and may have included the birth of Mormonism when Joseph Smith’s family and friends left Vermont to travel, eventually, to Utah. Many New Englanders gave up on the rocky soil and what had become unspeakably harsh weather to leave for another part of the continent with, they hoped, more favorable growing conditions.
Perhaps not surprisingly, members of Congress didn’t show much empathy at the time. They voted to double their salary that summer. In the next election, 70 percent, including Daniel Webster, were turned out of office … bad optics, you might say. The impossible pricing for oats and hay led to the invention of a precursor to the bicycle, to offer people an alternative means of travel to using struggling and starving horses. A number of the Founding Fathers also went into heavy debt, including plantation and slave owner Jefferson — who remained in major debt the rest of his life.
Besides the disastrous impacts, the rain and gloom of that summer canceled European vacation plans for most. With that, literary giants Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori all went to Geneva to hold a “staycation”in which they challenged one another to write works which could feed off the gloom. From that challenge came Mary Shelley’s start to her famous “Frankenstein” novel. Polidori wrote “The Vampyre,” which later inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” It turns out the brutal and dark side of nature lent itself to these dark tales, which live on today with some thanks, I suppose, to Karloff and Lugosi.
If such a cataclysmic eruption were to occur now, its effects would again be terrible, though mitigated to a small extent by stored grains and packaged foods.
As for the few super magma domes – such as the one underneath Yellowstone – it would be another matter if one broke loose. Survivability of civilization as we know it would be doubtful. Fortunately, volcanologists who monitor these domes see no indication of any such disaster looming, so that’s one less thing to keep you up at night.