Sunday, August 26, 2007


This one comes under the heading of "be careful what you wish for," in this era of global warming.

People nowadays don't read too much history, and most are not aware of this, but the year 1816 was regarded around the world as "The Year Without a Summer". Throughout the Northern Hemisphere that summer, record cold, frosts and even snow were reported in every month of the year, including June, July and August.

Alshough that was almost 200 years ago, we have many contemporary newspaper accounts as well as the written records of numerous private citizens, especially those New England farmers who experienced crop failures because of the cold weather. Because of those crop failures, thousands left New England to settle the Midwestern states in search of a new life. A substantial number of the early settlers in the Chicagoland area came from New England at that time. The crop failures caused Mormon founder Joseph Smith to move his family to Illinois from Vermont.

According to the Decatur County (Ohio) Journal, for example, January and February, 1816, were relatively mild. The vegetation was coming up in April, when real winter set in. Sleet and snow fell on 17 different days in May. In June, there was either frost or snow every night but three. In upstate New York, the snow was 5 inches deep for several days in succession, and in Maine and Vermont, there was between 1 and 3 feet of snow on the ground. Snow and frost were common as far South as Virginia.

July wasn't much better. Although there were a few hot days, there was also unprecedented frost with ice forming on window panes throughout New England. August also saw ice forming on ponds, and whatever crops that had survived were killed off for good. To assist in the mass migration, the Erie Canal was built in 1817.

In Europe, the weather was just as bad. The authors Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his wife Mary, along with John William Polidori went on vacation to Lord Byron's house on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was cold and rainy, and the trio could not enjoy their holiday. So they decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Although she didn't live long enough to cash in on the movie rights, Mary Shelley won the contest with her work, now called Frankenstein. Polidori wrote the novel The Vampyre, which was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's later novel Dracula.

In Ireland, cold rain fell for 142 of the 153 summer days. The moist conditions were later blamed for the typhus epidemic of 1816-19, as well as Ireland's first famine, when the westher destryoed the potato, wheat and oat crops.

In Germany, because of the scarcity and high price of oats, people were motivated to come up with a way to replace the horse for transportation. Karl Drais invented the velocipede, a predecessor of the bicycle.

Although people didn't know it at the time, the cold was the result of the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia). The eruption, which is considered the worst in the past 10,000 years, ejected about 150 cubic kilometers of ash into the atmosphere, which, over several months, was dispersed around the world. By contrast, the infamous 1883 Krakatoa eruption ejected only about 20 cubic kilometers of ash into the atmosphere, which created vivid sunsets worldwide. To put that into perspective, the disasterous 1980 Mount St.Helens eruption in Washington state threw only about 1 cubic kilometer of ash into the atmosphere.

The ash and sulfuric acid in the atmosphere blocked out a significant amount of solar radiation for several years after the eruption. The Mt. Tambora eruption had followed on the heels of two other major volcanic eruptions--Le Soufriere on the island of St. Vincent in 1812, and Mt. Mayon in the Philippines in 1814, both of which had already created a substantial amount of atmospheric dust. As a result, less sunlight penetrated the atmosphere, making it colder. The summers between 1811 and 1817 had below average temperatures, although 1816 was the lowest in that period. Interestingly, in 1817, the June average temperature in New England was even lower than that in June, 1816--1.3 degrees lower, but July and August moderated somewhat.

The summer of 1816 was not unprecedented in world history. In 1783, Mr. Laki in Iceland erupted, causing thousands of fatalities in Europe from the falling ash and the 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide ejected into the atmosphere, creating haze throughout Europe. In North America at the time, the winter of 1784 was one of the coldest on record. The Mississippi River froze over at New Orleans, and ice was present in the Gulf of Mexico. People went ice skating in Charleston harbor. Benjamin Franklin correctly surmised that the extreme cold was the result of volcanic activity.

Other historical events may have been caused or affected by volcanic eruptions. Mt. Kuwae in the South Pacific erupted in the mid-1400's, which caused climatic disruptions and had an effect on the morale of the defenders of Constantinople, which fell to the Ottoman invaders in 1453. In the years 535-36, the historian Procopius reported major climatic changes, which, based on modern analysis of ice cores and tree rings, could be traced to volcanic activity in the East Indies, probably Mt. Krakatoa. Even in modern times, the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1992 caused our following summer to be relatively cool, with many days not getting out of the 60's.

To conclude, volcanic activity can and does dwarf the amount of pollution caused by mankind. Although people aren't aware of the causes at the time, major historical events are affected by the weather, which can cause famine and poverty. There's nothing humans can do about it except to be prepared. One thing is for sure, when the next major eruption comes, we won't have to worry about global warming.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

One correction for your informative article: Joseph Smith was eleven years old in 1816, and he didn't move to Illinois until 1838.

July 18, 2008 at 4:52 AM  
Anonymous KENNETH SUSKIN said...

I stand corrected. Thank you for the information.


July 19, 2008 at 3:55 PM  

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