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Editor’s note: As DC endures typical July humidity and swelter, here’s a reminder that there are ways it could be worse.

–by Leah Shafer, USCHS intern

On May 3, 1816, a woman in Buffalo, NY wrote in her diary, “It froze so hard last night that mud three inches deep will bear a man.” She was not only cold, but also confused; for the past ninety years of recorded weather, the average temperature in Buffalo during May had been between about 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit—about 30 degrees away from freezing mud. This woman was recording the beginning of what would become 1816’s unseasonably chilly summer in northeast America: “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death,” “The Poverty Year,” “The Summer that Never Was,” or, as it is most commonly known, “The Year Without a Summer.”

As the other interns and I continued our research for USCHS’ 2016 We, the People calendar, which will have a fact for every day in 1816, we periodically came across letters and newspaper articles describe these extreme, upsetting, and at times dangerous weather conditions. Frosts coated crops throughout July; extreme drought plagued the nation; and the heat of summer simply never arrived. But just as challenging for these early Americans was their total lack of knowledge of the reason behind this frigidity. Were cold summers the new norm?

Today, 1816’s “Year Without a Summer” is largely credited to the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora a year and a half before, in April 1815. At the time of the eruption, now considered a Volcanic Explosivity Index-7, 10,000 Indonesians died as the volcano blasted rock, dust, and gas twenty-five miles up into the atmosphere and caused tsunamis to ravage the coast. But without Twitter, email, or telephones, news of the eruption traveled slowly, if at all. Europeans and Americans heard nothing about the destruction. Ash and dust filled the air and began to slowly circle the earth and block out the sun’s heat and light, but a year later Americans knew only the resulting backwards weather patterns.

Mount Tambora (NASA Landsat7 image (worldwind.arc.nasa.gov))

As a result, people in the United States looked for other solutions to the frost, drought, and agricultural disaster they experienced. The dust and ash in the atmosphere dimmed the sunlight, so sun spots were visible to the naked eye. Many Americans mistakenly recognized the sun spots as new and considered them as the cause of the strange weather. On August 29th, an article in the Daily National Intelligencer, D.C.’s main newspaper, speculated on the spots’ link to the cool summer:

Now it is well known that the heat of the sun exhales from earth abundance of vaporous combustible matter… The great part of these exhalations are carried forward to the sun, and…they hide for a while [on] part of the sun on which they fall, and they appear as spots to us. By the shade they make, they cool the atmosphere, and thus produce for a while a cold in proportion to their size and continuance. This we have experienced since the large spot last spring. …But it is feared…all our northern atmosphere has been affected by it, and we may expect to feel its effects for several seasons.

The general idea of some “matter” blocking out the sunlight is true, but the pseudo-science about the sunspots is, well, pseudo-science. Though laughably incorrect today, this opinion was widely taken as the truth throughout 1816; many other newspapers articles throughout the summer and fall blamed the chilly weather on sunspots.

But despite the uncomfortable cold, uncertainty of its permanence, and resulting poor crop yield that fall, some Americans still found humor in The Summer that Never Was. Five days later, on September 3rd, another writer from the Intelligencer jokingly connected the cold to a symbol of America’s victory over Canada in the recent War of 1812.“It seems very strange to me that ever since our late ‘just and necessary war,’ these Canadians winds have all blown so cold upon us!” he wrote.“At this rate it is very clear that Canada must be ours, or we must all migrate to the southward in a very few years!” Fortunately, the “Canadian winds” did not last past 1816, but the unusual weather did begin a great migration—not south, but west, as many New England farmers gave up on their crops and began to explore the westward frontier.

Works Cited

“1816 Diary Records a Summerless Year.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Apr 16, 1939. http://search.proquest.com/docview/102778221?accountid=10244.

C., J. “Spots on the Sun.” Daily National Intelligencer, August 29, 1816. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers (GT3017476968).

Evans, Robert. “Blast from the Past.” Smithsonian magazine, July 2002. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/blast.html (accessed April 26, 2013).

S., H. G. “The Season and Climate.”Daily National Intelligencer, September 3, 1816. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers (GT3017480571).

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