We often hear complaints about the weather, that it is too rainy for June, too windy for July, or too cool for August, and we sometimes hear claims that this is a year without a summer. But of course, it isn’t. It might surprise you to learn, though, that there actually was a year without a summer. It happened for real 1816.
In North America, troubling oddities in the climate were first noted in the spring of 1816. March and April of that year were colder than normal, and many of the crops that were planted that spring did not flourish. Frost destroyed other crops in May. By June, it was obvious that something was drastically wrong.
Actually, cooler than average temperatures marked the entire period between 1812 and 1818, but a catastrophic natural event in 1815 pushed much of the northern hemisphere into crisis the following year.
In April of 1815, Mount Tamboro on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia erupted, spewing an immense quantity of volcanic ash into the atmosphere. It was the most serious volcanic eruption in 1600 years, and it came after a three-year period of increased volcanic activity in different parts of the globe. In addition, this was also a period of reduced solar activity, which compounded the effects on the earth’s climate.
By 1816, the combined effects of this increased volcanic activity and decreased solar activity were felt generally throughout the northern hemisphere, and most acutely in the northeast corner of North America and in northern Europe.
On June 6, 1816, and then again on the 7th, people in eastern Canada, New England and parts of New York state watched in horror as two consecutive snowstorms covered fields and roads. While some locations reporting only a dusting of snow, other places had six inches or more, with drifting up to a foot. Animals died, and fruit trees lost their blossoms. And in places as far south as Pennsylvania and Ohio, while it did not snow, frost came and killed spring crops and fruit blossoms. Thus began a serious famine, which caused many human deaths and resulted in horrendous increases in the prices of food. 1816, the Year Without a Summer, is also known as Poverty Year. Unseasonably cold weather continued through July and August.
In Europe, the situation was similar. The cooler temperatures began in 1812, and the summer of 1816 was marked by freezing temperatures and snow in the north, and even in the mountains of Spain that summer. Italy reported red snow that year, which was most likely due to volcanic ash; Hungary had brown snow. Crops failed in Europe, malnutrition spread, and with it, food riots and epidemics. The death toll in Europe was twice that of an ordinary year.
In China, it was very much the same. 1816 was a year of unusual cold, with snow and frost in some areas during the summer, and food shortages all year. In addition, disruptions in China’s monsoon season that year led to serious flooding. Similar flooding in India caused a cholera outbreak that year.
Although the climate change of 1812-1818 was naturally occurring and short-lived, looking back on 1816 allows us to see some of the disastrous effects of climate change on human life.