Originally printed in the April 7, 2004 edition of the Illinois Valley News
In my reading about the early United States, I have occasionally come across the term “The Year Without a Summer.” This is usually used as part of the explanation why a family has moved out of the New England coastal area and ended up in Ohio or western New York.
Weather records really show that the year of 1816 had an extremely cold summer. In New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine the newspapers reported an almost normal cold winter of 1815-1816. March and April were colder than normal and pastures did not start to grow, so livestock had to be fed from supplies which were meant for the following winter.
On the 12 of May, a series of cold waves began to hit the east and frost was reported as far south as Virginia. Then the end of May showed a warming trend, farmers planted their crops, and trees began to produce blossoms. The 6” of June was the beginning of more frost and most of the crops were killed in the ground as well as newly shorn sheep in the pastures. Peach and apple blossoms were entirely destroyed through most of New England.
Another warm spell occurred during the end of June, but this was followed by more frosty periods in July which was devastating to farmers, which then affected the city dwellers without food storage. The wheat and rye fields were still alive until the 13 and 14 of August which brought more frost to the New England area. Very little fruit, vegetables, com, and wheat were available for farmers or the farmer’s livestock. This meant that little was available to sell in the towns to pay for taxes and mortgages. The few years previous to this had not been great and some farmers already were having troubles. Consequently, farms began to be taken over by the banks and families had to leave their farms.
The whole effect was a major shift of population to Ohio and western parts of New York and Pennsylvania. A term called “Ohio Fever” is used by some historians for this movement, which was repeated in the 1840s, called “Oregon Fever”. This, of course, was because of different circumstances. Europe also suffered during this same summer, with heavy frost and food shortages reported. These problems, along with a typhus epidemic, killed about 65,000 people in Europe alone.
What caused this disastrous summer cold? One theory deals with an increase in sunspot activity, but most scientists lay the blame on volcanoes. 1812 and 1814 were years of high volcanic activity in the Phillippines and the Caribbean Sea. The most explosive eruption of the period was Mount Tambora or sometimes called Tombora in Indonesia near Java. This is in the same area that Krakatau would explode in 1883. On April 5, 1815, a series of eruptions began on the island of Sumbawa which culminated in a massive explosion on April 10, completely blowing the top of the volcano away. This released huge amounts of dust, ash, and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, which, within months became noticeable all over the earth. The tidal waves, explosions, magma and destruction of food killed an estimated 92,000 people, but the atmospheric debris affected sunsets and the climate all around the globe.
In 1980, Mt. St. Helens erupted in Washington and an estimated 2/3 of a cubic mile of material was released. By comparison, about 12 cubic miles, or 18 times as much material was ejected by the eruption of Mt. Tambora. Dust and ash from Mt. St. Helens created much hardship and crop damage but it was minor compared to the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815.