Day 770: The Summerless Summer

originally published February 8, 2014

This year the news has been splattered by alarming weather reports like a silent film soundstage wall after take thirteen of an epic pie fight. Much of the western world has been grappling with weather that we in Edmonton call ‘regular winter’. I’m not trying to minimize the unusual meteorological hip-check nature has bestowed upon my more southernly friends – after all, up here we’re well stocked with snow tires, city plows and vehicle block heaters. The folks in Texas, not so much. 

Perhaps the most common and least valuable platitude here is “it could be worse.” The bone-scraping cold and soul-squishing wind are brutal, but at least they’re unleashing their fury during the vacuum of the winter months. When the silver light of spring shows up, nature’s insipid polar fart will be nothing more than a series of old photos, buried deep in the tomb of distant newsfeeds. 

In 1816, there was no such relief. The winter was winter, but spring and summer were slaughtered like calves en route to becoming veal marsala, cut down in the prime of youth. Historically they call it the Year Without A Summer. Its effects were cruel but the wonky residue may have given birth to the Old West, the Model T, the Book of Mormon and the Depression-era fad of spooky horror flicks. That’s a hell of a weather pattern. 

It all began with the massive eruption of Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. This was one of only two VEI-7 eruptions in the past millennium – and that scale only goes up to 8. This occurred on April 15, 1815, and while the 100 cubic kilometers of solid earth the volcano blasted into neighboring communities caused a virtual apocalypse for locals, the ash and toxins pumped into the atmosphere would sneak up and bitch-slap the rest of the planet several months later. 

Tambora’s cymbal-crash of explosive power was merely the climactic finale to a cavalcade of eruptions around the globe: La Soufrière in the Caribbean, Awu in Indonesia, Suwanosejima in Japan and Mayon in the Philippines had all cracked the VEI-4 mark between 1812 and 1814. After percolating in our atmosphere for a year or so, these geological villains finally released their wrath upon the earth. 

The approximate opposite side of the globe from where Tambora blew her proverbial wad is the Caribbean Sea. Strangely, apart from the regions of the Far East near the volcano, the hardest hit by Tambora’s after-effects was nearer to that opposite. It was the Eastern U.S. seaboard, up through Canada and over to Western Europe that suffered the most. A chilling winter that was scheduled to release its icy grip and retreat to its candy-cane-coated, penguin-infested cave simply never left. A fog settled over New England, a fog that neither rain nor wind could nudge aside. Then there was the cold. 

Frost wrapped itself around crops and livestock in Connecticut on June 4. Two days later it was snowing between Albany, New York and the wide arm of Maine. Temperatures in New York City were reported to be below freezing every single day of May. By July 7, everything had simply stopped growing; it was agricultural devastation, and it didn’t let up. New England’s Berkshire Hills were frozen over once again in mid-August.  

Food riots and famine gripped the UK and France. Many Welsh families became refugee beggars, and Ireland was trounced by a potato famine the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again for… well, actually that happened again pretty quickly. Ireland had a rotten century in the 1800’s. 

Major European rivers flooded and displaced thousands. The number of deaths in Switzerland was double the norm. In total, it’s believed that close to 200,000 people died in Europe as a result of this meteorological anomaly – globally, it’s hard to say. Food prices skyrocketed, and the more impoverished folks became the most intrinsically desperate. Roughly a quarter of the corn crops planted in New England were usable – the rest weren’t even good enough to cream. 

Suddenly a line of abandoned cars along the highway this year doesn’t look so bad. 

Nature’s sense of humor was unfathomably morbid in 1816. Red and brown snow fell upon Hungary and Italy the following winter, tainted by the remaining ash in the upper attics of the sky. While throttled rice production in China sparked widespread famines there also, a delayed monsoon in India transported a cholera epidemic from the River Ganges in Bengal all the way up to Moscow. The Yangtze Valley was flooded, and it took years to rebuild. 

It’s hard to imagine such global devastation wrought by an eruption that clocks in as a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The closest we’ve seen is Mount St. Helens popping her lid in 1980, and that was only a magnitude 5. This blast even changed the way the sun set, providing a magnificent effusion of color and light every evening. This can be seen in artwork from that year, like the tinted watercolors of British painter J.M.W. Turner. I suppose these spectacular visual displays were Nature’s way of apologizing for being such a dick in every other way in 1816. 

But what about the up-side? I don’t mean the pretty colors in the sky, but the ways that Mount Tambora’s great cough ended up furthering society. Well, the famine encouraged future chemist Justus von Liebig to research plant nutrition and eventually invent the fertilizer industry. The lack of oats to keep horses alive also may have prompted German inventor Karl Drais to seek out new ways to get around. He’d end up unveiling the velocipede (the prototype of the bicycle, whose convenience would eventually lead to the car) a short time later. 

When a group of esteemed writers found their summer Swiss vacation spoiled by incessant rain and unconscionable unpleasantness, they turned their back on the outside world and held a fun contest to see who could come up with the scariest story. That worked out well: Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, while Lord Byron spit out “A Fragment”, the story that would later inspire John William Polidori to write The Vampyre, the novella that would give birth to the Dracula myth. 

After such a wretched growing season, a massive number of Americans decided they’d had it with home, so they headed out west. The weather would be more temperate and the soil more fertile, they were told. And so began the exodus to plant roots in the American Heartland, leading to the frontier, the Old West, and eventually a cross-continent society. 

It’s estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people left Vermont alone that year. One of those former Vermontians happened to be a fed-up Joseph Smith, who followed the sun all the way to Utah, where a series of events would lead to the founding of the Mormon religion. 

So if we take these positive fall-out effects on our culture into account, perhaps the volcanic eruption, massive loss of life and year without a winter wasn’t so bad. Okay, it was. It was absolutely bad. But at least we’ve got some context – a bit of snow and cold this year ain’t such a big thing. 

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