1816 - The Year Without Summer

 

By: Lee Foster, Meteorologist

 

As we all know living in New England means enduring long winters and savoring the short summers. However, in 1816, the summer season was shorter than normal and is commonly referred to as “The Year Without Summer”. I first heard about this infamous summer from my grandfather who lived his entire life in Northern New Hampshire. He was not alive in 1816 but stories of that summer were passed down from generation to generation. His stories about that summer peaked my interest in the actual conditions in 1816 and after some research I discovered that indeed the summer of 1816 was not your typical summer.  

 

 The indications of a possible cool summer were evident during the spring time. The middle of May brought unseasonably cool temperatures to the region with light snow reported in Quebec Province with frost as far south as Virginia. Mild and sunny conditions returned to the Northeast by the last week of May before a strong cold front crossed New England on the 28th with light snow again reported in Quebec and frost as far south as Pennsylvania. Reports of fruit trees being set back and acres of corn killed in Maine were common.

 

After a warm start to June, the month quickly turned stormy. A strong Nor’easter developed along the east coast on the 6th with rain mixed with snow in Quebec City and light snow observed over the highlands of New York and most of Northern New England.  As this winter type storm moved into the Canadian Maritimes on the 7th, the storm dumped 6 to 12 inches of snow over most of Northern New England with reports of 2 foot drifts in Quebec City. Strong high pressure followed the storm from the 8th through the 10th with frost every morning and reports of trees blackened or scorched across most of New England. By the end of the month the weather became more typical of June with even a heat wave from the 22nd through the 24th.

 

If June was bad enough, July started out no better. A strong Canadian cold front crossed New England killing corn, beans, cucumbers and squash and the first talk of famine started. However, by the middle of the month, thoughts of a famine were almost forgotten as the hardy grains such as wheat and rye along with potatoes were doing quite well.

 

The fine weather continued into the middle of August when another frost occurred over interior New York and all of New England damaging many crops. Then on the 20th a strong cold front crossed the Northeast with violent thunderstorms. Reports of temperatures falling 30 degrees after frontal passage were not uncommon. Frost was reported the next day as far south as Massachusetts with snow reported on Mt Moosilouke in New Hampshire. Corn was destroyed from Albany to Boston. If that cold spell wasn’t enough, it all came to an end on the 28th when another strong cold front crossed the Northeast with severe frost that ended the growing season in most of Northern New England.

 

The consequences of this season were harsh. Only a third to a fourth of the hay was cut with only 10 percent of the crop harvested in some areas. Orchard yields ranged from barren to moderate but enough grains, wheat, and potatoes were harvested to prevent a famine but hardships did occur. There were reports of people eating raccoons, pigeons, and mackerel. Corn prices rose from $1.00 a bushel to nearly $3.00 a bushel. With crop failure and the shortage of hay, farmers turned to selling their cows and pigs which drove the price of meat down. With so much meat on the market beef prices dropped from $15.50 to $7.50 a barrel with pork falling from $16 to $4 a barrel.

 

So what caused this unusual weather during the summer of 1816? Some believe it was caused by sinners while some even blamed it on Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod experiments. However, climate data obtained from trees, ice cores, marine sediment and historical documents indicate 1816 was part of a mini ice age that lasted from 1400 to around 1860. During this time lower solar output produced harsh winters, shorter growing seasons and drier climates which were blamed for a host of human suffering and crop failures such as the Irish Potato Famine.  Another possible cause was the eruption of the Tambora volcano on the island of Soembawa in Indonesia on April 15th 1815. The eruption lasted one week and rumbled for 3 months. The mountain elevation dropped from 14,000 feet to 9000 feet, killed close to 10,000 people on the island and another 80,000 people would eventually die from starvation and diseases related to the eruption. Tambora was one of the largest recorded eruptions with estimates of 1.7 million tons of dust put into the air equaling 6 million atomic bombs. The theory is that the dust reached the Northern Hemisphere during 1816 reducing solar output.

 

Whatever the cause, the next year saw the first general migration from the Northeast to the Midwest and 1816 also became know as the Poverty Year. The following poem from Eileen Marguet summed up the year:

 

It didn't matter whether your farm was large or small.

It didn't matter if you had a farm at all.

Cause everyone was affected when water didn't run.

The snow and frost continued without the warming sun.

One day in June it got real hot and leaves began to show.

But after that it snowed again and wind and cold did blow.

The cows and horses had no grass, no grain to feed the chicks.

No hay to put aside that time, just dry and shriveled sticks.

The sheep were cold and hungry and many starved to death,

Still waiting for the warming sun to save their labored breath.

The kids were disappointed, no swimming, such a shame.

It was in 1816 that summer never came.

 

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