The year without a summer

Weather Eye
with John Maunder

Some of the answers to the complexities of the climate system are given in my recently published book Fifteen shades of climate... the fall of the weather dice and the butterfly effect.

The following are extracts are from pages 203- 207.

The 19th Century weather disaster - dubbed “The Year Without a Summer” - happened in 1816, when the weather in Europe and North America took a bizarre turn which resulted in widespread crop failures and famine.

On April 10, 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia produced the largest eruption known on the planet during the last 10,000 years. The volcano erupted more than 50 cubic kilometres of magma. The eruption produced global climatic effects and killed more than 100,000 people, directly and indirectly. Pyroclastic flows reached the sea on all sides of the peninsula, and heavy tephra fall devastated croplands, causing an estimated 60,000 fatalities. Entire villages were buried under thick pumice deposits. Some of the settlements have recently been brought back to light by archaeological excavations, making a site called ‘Pompeii of Indonesia’. While the death toll of people living on Sumbawa and surrounding coastal areas was high enough, even more fatalities can be attributed to an indirect effect of global climate deterioration after the eruption.

These changes turned 1816 into ‘The Year without a Summer’ for much of Europe, causing widespread famine. The reason for the climatic changes was increased absorption of sunlight due to a veil of aerosols dispersed around both hemispheres by stratospheric currents from the tall eruption column. Global temperatures dropped by as much as 3°C in 1816.

Unprecedented weather in 1816

‘The Year without a Summer’ was well reported in the United States and Europe, as the following description suggests.

The weather in 1816 was unprecedented. Spring arrived but then everything seemed to turn backward, as cold temperatures returned. The sky seemed permanently overcast. The lack of sunlight became so severe farmers lost their crops and food shortages were reported in Ireland, France, England, and the United States. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson retired from the presidency and farming at Monticello sustained crop failures that sent him further into debt.

It would be more than a century before anyone understood the reason for the peculiar weather disaster: the eruption of an enormous volcano on a remote island in the Indian Ocean one year earlier had thrown enormous amounts of volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere.

But before the cause was known, in Switzerland, the damp and dismal summer of 1816 led to the creation of a significant literary work. A group of writers, including Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his future wife, challenged each other to write dark tales inspired by the gloomy and chilly weather. During the miserable weather Mary Shelley wrote her classic novel Frankenstein.

The Albany Advertiser went on to propose some theories about why the weather was so bizarre.

The mention of sunspots is interesting, as sunspots had been seen by astronomers. What’s fascinating is the newspaper article from 1816 proposes such events should be studied, so people can learn what is going on. For example:

“Many seem disposed to charge the peculiarities of the season, the present year, upon the spots on the sun. If the dryness of the season has in any measure depended on the latter cause, it has not operated uniformly in different places – the spots have been visible in Europe, as well as in the United States and yet in some parts of Europe, as we have already remarked, they have been drenched with rain.”

“Without undertaking to discuss, much less to decide, such a learned subject as this, we should be glad if proper pains were taken to ascertain, by regular journals of the weather from year to year, the state of the seasons in this country and Europe, as well as the general state of health in both quarters of the globe. We think the facts might be collected, and the comparison made, without much difficulty; and when once made, that it would be of great advantage to medical men, and medical science.”

Volcanic hazards

Today, in 2021, we now know volcanoes can pose many hazards. One hazard is that volcanic ash can be a threat to jet aircraft where ash particles can be melted by the high operating temperature. The melted particles then adhere to the turbine blades and alter their shape, disrupting the operation of the turbine.

Large volcanic eruptions can affect temperature, as ash and droplets of sulphuric acid obscure the sun and cool the Earth’s lower atmosphere, or troposphere. However, they also absorb heat radiated up from the Earth, thereby warming the upper atmosphere, or stratosphere. Historically, socalled volcanic winters have caused catastrophic famines.

From Wood, Gillen D’Arcy, ‘1816, The Year without a Summer’. Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, we read the following:

“To be alive in the years 1816-18, almost anywhere in the world, meant to be hungry. Across the globe during the so-called ‘Year without a Summer’ – which was, in fact, a three-year climate crisis – harvests perished in frost and drought or were washed away by flooding rains. Villagers in Vermont survived on hedgehogs and boiled nettles, while the peasants of Yunnan in China sucked on white clay. Summer tourists travelling in France mistook beggars crowding the roads for armies on the march.”

“Famine-friendly diseases cholera and typhus stalked the globe from India to Italy, while the price of bread and rice, the world’s staple foods, skyrocketed with no relief in sight. Across a European continent devastated by the Napoleonic wars, tens of thousands of unemployed veterans found themselves unable to feed their families. They gave vent to their desperation in town square riots and military-style campaigns of arson, while governments everywhere feared revolution. In New England, 1816 was nicknamed ‘Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death’ while Germans called 1817 ‘The Year of the Beggar’. ”

“In the scientific literature, the 1816’s cold summer was the most significant meteorological event of the nineteenth century. The global climate emergency period of 1816-18, as a whole, offers us a clear window onto a world convulsed by weather anomalies, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in weather patterns, and to a consequent tsunami of famine, disease, dislocation and unrest.”


There are no comments on this blog.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to make a comment. Login Now