“We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America. In June, instead of 3 ¾ inches, our average of rain for that month, we only had ⅓ of an inch; in August, instead of 9 1/6 inches, our average, we had only 8/10 of an inch; and still it continues. The summer, too, has been as cold as a moderate winter. In every State north of this there has been frost in every month of the year; in this State we had none in June and July, but those of August killed much corn over the mountains. The crop of corn through the Atlantic States will probably be less than one-third of an ordinary one, that of tobacco still less, and of mean quality. The crop of wheat was middling in quantity, but excellent in quality. But every species of bread grain taken together will not be sufficient for the subsistence of the inhabitants, and the exportation of flour, already begun by the indebted and the improvident, to whatsoever degree it may be carried, will be exactly so much taken from the mouths of our own citizens. My anxieties on this subject are the greater, because I remember the deaths which the drought of 1755 in Virginia produced from the want of food.”
Thomas Jefferson writing to Albert Gallatin
September 8, 1816 (Jefferson, 1904-5)
1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ or ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’ because of severe climate abnormalities that caused temperatures to decrease resulting in social, economic, and agricultural dislocations across the entire Northern Hemisphere. These unusual climatic abnormalities had the greatest effect on New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, Atlantic Canada, The United Kingdom, and large parts of Western Europe. The effects were also felt in parts of Asia.
Evidence suggests the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Tambora is just one of many volcanoes in the archipelago of Indonesia and once was a mammoth peak – almost 14,000 feet high, believed to have been silent for 5,000 years before the explosion occurred. Then, in 1812, Tambora awoke from its slumber and small eruptions of steam and ash began to emanate from the mountain, accompanied by significant earth tremors. This continued until 5 April, 1815, when the first great eruption occurred, generating a volcanic column over 15 miles high. This blast was heard over 600 miles away. Five days later, on 10 April, a several colossal explosions occurred (heard almost 1600 miles away), creating columns of volcanic material that stretched up to 25 miles into the sky.
What goes up normally comes down, so when these columns collapsed, they formed pyroclastic flows – earth-hugging clouds of hot ash, rocks and pumice that rushed across the island killing almost the entire population of the Tambora province, over 10,000 people. In addition, when these flows reached the sea, they produced tsunamis up to 16 feet high. These crashed into neighboring islands across the archipelago, killing thousands more. The lighter ashes and dusts remained in the skies, turning day into night for days across an area hundreds of kilometers from the blast. When this ash finally fell back to earth, it blanketed the ground so completely that all vegetation died. The resulting famine and disease killed as many as 80,000 people across the islands in the region. All in all, the estimated death toll, as a direct result of the eruptions is between 90,000 and 117,000 – the largest death toll from a volcano in recorded history. (Evans, 2002) To put the size of this eruption in into perspective, using the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) where each whole number increase by a factor of 10, the Tambora eruption is thought to have been 100 times the size of the Mt St Helens eruption in the American Pacific Northwest which rated a 5! (United States Geological Survey, 2015)
Mt. Tambora’s explosion thrust plumes of gas and ash some 26 miles into the stratosphere, with fallout distributed as far as 800 miles distant, and plunged the entire South Asian region into darkness. The massive load of sulfate gases Tambora injected into the stratosphere produced an aerial dust cloud calculated to contain up to 1,300,000 cubic yards of fines and sulfates. This great sun-obscuring plume then circled the earth at the equator in a matter of weeks before drifting pole-ward, playing havoc with the world’s major weather systems for almost three years.
Some scientists argue that three other factors helped to increase the effect of the large quantities of volcanic fines expelled into the atmosphere. First, in the years immediately preceding the Mt Tambora eruption there had been a number of volcanic eruptions with a VEI of at least 4. These included:
1812 – La Soufrière on Saint Vincent in the Caribbean
1812 – Awu in the Sangihe Islands, Indonesia
1813 – Suwanosejima in the Ryukyu Islands, Japan
1814 – Mayon in the Philippines
These eruptions had already built up a substantial amount of atmospheric dust. (World Heritage Encyclopedia, 2014)
Second, 1816 marked the midpoint of one of the Sun’s extended periods of low magnetic activity, called the Dalton Minimum. This particular minimum lasted from about 1795 to the 1820s. It resembled the earlier Maunder Minimum (about 1645-1715) that was responsible for at least 70 years of abnormally cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere.
A third event, that may have played a role during both the Dalton and the Maunder minima, was the Sun shifting its place in the solar system — something it does every 178 to 180 years. During this cycle, the Sun moves its position relative to the solar system’s center of mass. This is a trick of gravity is known as “inertial solar motion.” Scientists have not yet confirmed whether inertial solar motion affects Earth’s climate directly, but it remains a possibility. (Soon & Yaskell, 2003)
For the next two years, the enormous cloud of sulfate gases Tambora ejected into the atmosphere slowed the development of the Indian monsoon, the world’s largest weather system, which depends on the asymmetric heating of land and sea. The monsoons turn large parts of India from a kind of semi-desert into green lands. In these regions, it is crucial for farmers to have the right timing for putting the seeds on the fields, just as it is essential to use all the rain that is available for growing crops. The monsoons’ influence is also felt as far north as in China’s Xinjiang. About 70% of all precipitation in the central part of the Tian Shan Mountains falls during the three summer months, when the region is under the monsoon influence.
Drought brought on by this disruption devastated crop yields across the Indian subcontinent, but more disastrously gave rise to a new and deadly strain of cholera. Cholera had always been endemic to Bengal, but the bizarre weather of 1816–17 triggered by Tambora’s eruption—first drought, then late, unseasonal flooding—altered the microbial ecology of the Bay of Bengal. The cholera bacterium, highly sensitive to changes in its aquatic environment and possessing an unusually adaptive genetic structure, quickly mutated into a new strain. With no resistance among the local population, this new strain spread like wildfire across Asia and eventually the globe. By century’s end, the death toll from Bengal cholera stood in the tens of millions.
In southwest China, the outlying mountainous province of Yunnan suffered terribly from the cold volcanic weather, losing crop after crop of rice to bitter winds and flooding rains. The situation was so extreme that desperate Yunnanese resorted to eating white clay, while parents sold their children in the town markets or killed them out of mercy.
In the aftermath of this three-year famine, Yunnan farmers turned to a more reliable cash crop—opium—to ensure their families’ survival against future disasters. Within a few decades, farmers were growing opium all across Yunnan, while opium-processing technology and experience drifted south into the remote mountains of modern-day Burma and Laos. The “golden triangle” of international opium production was born. (Wood, 2014)
Fort Shuangcheng, now in Heilongjiang, reported fields disrupted by frost and conscripts deserting as a result. Various locations in Jiangxi and Anhui, located at around 30°N, reported summer snowfall and other mixed precipitation. In Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, Hsinchu and Miaoli reported snow and Changhua reported frost.
In 1816-17, the scale of human suffering in Switzerland was among the worst in Europe. 130 days of rain between April and September 1816 swelled the waters of Lake Geneva, flooding the city, while in the mountains the snow did not melt. When the crops failed, thousands died of starvation during continental Europe’s last ever famine, while the numbers of indigent homeless ran into the hundreds of thousands. Mortality in 1817 was over 50% higher than its already elevated rate in the war year 1815. Everywhere, desperate villagers resorted to a pitiful famine diet of “the most loathsome and unnatural foods—carcasses of dead animals, cattle fodder, leaves of nettles, swine food. . . .” (Wood G. D., 2014)
In France, the authorities concentrated on keeping the price of bread affordable in Paris, the seat of revolution a just over two and a half decades ago. As might be expected, unrest in the neglected provinces increased with chronic rioting in the market towns and entire regions on edge of anarchy. The experience of sustained food shortages and later social instability spurred governments toward the authoritarian, rightward shift we associate with the political landscape of post-Napoleonic Europe. Fear of agricultural shortfall also motivated political leaders to adopt protectionist policies. It is in the post-Tambora period that tariffs and trade walls first emerged as standard features of the European and transatlantic economic system.
In the United Kingdom, widespread stress on food supplies sparked waves of violent social protest. In Ireland, the summer of 1816 was much rainier than normal, and the potato crop failed, followed by a major typhus epidemic between 1816 and 1819 An estimated 100,000 Irish perished during this period.
Failures of wheat, rye, and other grain crops across the British Isles led to bread shortages. Riots broke out in the East Anglian counties in England as early as May 1816. Armed laborers bearing flags with the slogan “Bread or Blood” marched on the town of Ely and held its magistrates hostage, fighting a pitched battle against the militia. In March 1817, more than 10,000 demonstrated in Manchester, while in June, the so-called “Pentrich Revolution,” involving plans to invade and occupy the city of Nottingham, began. The army quelled this and similar disturbances in Scotland and Wales. In the face of this wave of crime and insurrection, provincial jails filled to overflowing across the kingdom with scores of rioters hanged or transported.
There does not seem to have been a widespread perception, at least in New England and the rest of the eastern United States, that the winter of 1815-16 was particularly harsh or cold. However, when the winter began to linger long into the spring, people began to take notice. Comments found in many diaries throughout the eastern United States begin to show concern and puzzlement about the weather in April and early May.
In the spring and summer of 1816, observers reported a persistent “dry fog” 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.” At higher elevations, where farming was problematic in good years, the cooler climate did not quite support agriculture. In May 1816, 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. (Oppenheimer, 2003)
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.” (Atkins, 1887)
In July and August, observers reported lake and river ice as far south as northwestern Pennsylvania. On August 20 and 21, there was frost as far south as Virginia. Rapid, dramatic temperature swings became common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures as high as 95 °F to near freezing within hours.
The real problem lay in the weather’s effect on crops and thus on the supply of food and firewood. On September 13, a Virginia newspaper reported that corn crops would be one half to two-thirds short, and lamented, “The cold as well as the drought has nipt the buds of hope.” Earlier, the same newspaper reported, “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.” (American Beacon (Norfolk, VA), 1816) Thomas Jefferson, who upon retirement from the presidency took up farming at Monticello in Virginia, sustained crop failures that sent him further into debt.
Regional farmers did succeed in bringing some crops to market, but corn and other grain prices rose dramatically. The price of oats, for example, rose from 12¢ a bushel in 1815 – equal to $1.55 today – to 92¢ a bushel in 1816, – $12.78 today. An inadequate transportation network, with few roads or navigable inland waterways and no railroads, aggravated the situation caused by crop failures; making it even more expensive to import food.
One other effect of the crop failures of the “Year Without a Summer” may have been to help shape the settling of the “American Heartland”. Thousands of people, particularly farm families wiped out by the event, left New England for 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. The population of Vermont decreased between 10,000 and 15,000 people, erasing the previous seven years of population growth.
Western emigration almost certainly would have occurred without the weather anomalies of 1816. However, somewhere in the complex mix of motivations that spurred families from New England or the Middle Atlantic states to try their fortunes in the West, these events helped to create hopes and expectations that climate conditions elsewhere might be more favorable, less volatile, and ultimately more controllable.
Now for Monsters!
In the title of this article, I mentioned monsters and I intend to deliver.
One of the best known works of horror fiction in modern times arose indirectly from the Mt. Tambora explosion. It happened that the poets, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, their wives, and some other friends were vacationing at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816. Because of the rainy weather, they spent much of that summer with their friends and family entertaining indoors and one of their entertainments was to read German ghost stories to each other. During one such gathering, Lord Byron proposed that each member present attempt to write a ghost story. Shelley’s wife, Mary, came up with a story that she developed into a novel that is wildly popular today – Frankenstein.
In her account of the stormy night in Geneva when she first conceived her famous story, Shelley imagines Frankenstein waking from a nightmare to find his hideous creation at his bedside, “looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.” This description is reminiscent of many impressions of European beggars in this period. One English tourist, travelling from Rome to Naples in 1817, remarked on “the livid aspect of the miserable inhabitants of this region.” When asked how they lived, these “animated spectres” replied simply: “We die.” From the beginning of its creation, Shelley’s imaginative creation of her famous Creature bears the mark of the famished and diseased European population that surrounded her in 1816-18.
Like the hordes of hungry refugees spreading typhus across the continent during Shelley’s writing of the novel, the Creature in Frankenstein is a wanderer and a perceived menace to civilized society. In the novel, this murderous ability is attributed to the monster’s preternatural strength. But the terrifying atmosphere of his rampage, and his ability to strike at will across thousands of miles, seems more like the spread of a famine or contagion. As the Creature himself puts it, he suffered first “from the inclemency of the season,” but “still more from the barbarity of man.” (Wood G. D., 2014)
Frankenstein is not the only monster who can trace its creation to this group spending a soggy summer in Geneva. Also in this group was John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, who also took part in the “ghost story challenge.” Polidori’s submission to the competition was the novel The Vampyre, first published in the April 1819 issue of New Monthly Magazine. This short story later inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (Lazzari, 2015)
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Atkins, W. G. (1887). History of the Town of Hawley, Franklin County, Massachusetts. West Cummington: William G. Atkins.
Evans, R. (2002, July). Blast From the Past. Smithsonian Magazine.
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Lazzari, M. E. (2015, May). “Introduction” Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism. Retrieved from eNotes.
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Wood, G. D. (2014, April 09). The Volcano that Changed the Course of History. Retrieved from Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/04/tambora_eruption_caused_the_year_without_a_summer_cholera_opium_famine_and.html
World Heritage Encyclopedia. (2014). Year Without a Summer. Retrieved from World Heritage Encyclopedia: http://www.worldheritage.org/article/WHEBN0000095812/Year%20Without%20a%20Summer