Year Without a Summer

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The Year Without a Summer, also known as the Poverty Year and Eighteen hundred and froze to death was 1816, in which severe summer climate abnormalities destroyed crops in Northern Europe and the American Northeast.

It is now known that the aberrations occurred because of the April 5 through April 15, 1815 volcanic eruptions of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies (in today's Indonesia) which ejected over a million and a half metric tons of dust into the upper atmosphere. As is common following a massive volcanic eruption, temperatures fell worldwide due to reduced sunlight.

The unusual climate aberrations of 1816 had the greatest effect on the American northeast and northern Europe. Typically, the late spring and summer of the American Northeast are relatively stable: temperatures average about 20–25 °C (68–77 °F), and rarely fall below 5 °C (41 °F). Summer snow is an extreme rarity, though May flurries sometimes occur.

In May of 1816, however, frost killed off most of the crops that had been planted, and in June two large snowstorms resulted in many human deaths as well. In July and August, lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania. Rapid, dramatic temperature swings were common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures (as high as 35 °C, or 95 °F) to near-freezing within hours. Even though farmers south of New England did succeed in bringing some crops to maturity, maize (corn) and other grain prices rose dramatically. Oats, for example, rose from 12 cents a bushel the previous year to 92 cents a bushel.

Many historians cite the year without a summer as a primary motivation for the rapid settlement of what is now the American Midwest. Many New Englanders were wiped out by the year, and tens of thousands struck out for the richer soil and better growing conditions of the Upper Midwest. A specific instance of this was when the family of Mormon founder Joseph Smith moved from Sharon, Vermont to Palmyra, New York in far western New York state after several crop failures. While crops had been poor for several years, the final blow came in 1815 with the eruption of Tambora.

Europe, still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in Britain and France and grain warehouses were looted. The violence was worst in landlocked Switzerland, where famine caused the government to declare a national emergency.

The lack of food inspired Karl Freiherr von Drais to research new ways of horseless transportation which led to the invention of the velocipede or Draisine, a predecessor of the modern bicycle.

In July 1816 "incessant rainfall" during that "wet, ungenial summer" forced Mary Shelley, John William Polidori and their friends to stay indoors for much of their Swiss holiday, leading Shelley to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Polidori to write The Vampyre. High levels of ash in the atmosphere led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, a feature celebrated in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. (A similar phenomenon was observed after the 1883 Krakatoa eruption.)

In 1920, American climatologist William Humphreys eventually determined the cause of the year without a summer, after reading a treatise written by Ben Franklin in 1783 blaming the unusually cool summer of that year on volcanic dust coming from the eruption of Laki in Iceland.

A BBC documentary using figures compiled in Switzerland estimated that fatality rates in 1816 were twice that of average years, giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths.

A comparable episode, the climate changes of 535-536, happened earlier in the 6th century.


  • BBC Timewatch documentary: Year Without Summer, Cicada Films (BBC2, 27 May 2005)

External links

de:Jahr ohne Sommer es:Ao sin verano


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