If you think that spring has been slow to arrive, just imagine what it was like during the summer of 1816, known as “The Year Without A Summer.” The root cause of the winter-like weather was a volcanic eruption that took place 200 years ago this month.
Mount Tambora, a 9,500-foot volcanic mountain in Indonesia, had been dormant for hundreds of years before slowly rumbling to life in 1812. This culminated in a series of massive explosive eruptions that took place between April 5 and 11.
The volcano’s biggest explosion on April 10 is believed to be the largest single explosion in recorded history, heard more than 1,600 miles away and producing tsunamis as large as 13 feet. All vegetation on Sumbawa, the island that Tambora sits on, was destroyed, and an estimated 4,600 people were killed as a result of the eruption, with as many as 50,000 people dying from hunger and disease in the following year.
The impacts of Mount Tambora’s eruption would be felt worldwide. The ash and sulfur dioxide eruption column reached as high as 27 miles above the surface, allowing the particles to travel around the world. As a result, weather conditions were highly unusual over the next year or so.
The ash caused a “dry fog” for most of the summer of 1815, producing brilliant sunrises and sunsets but also dimmed the sunlight to the extent that sunspots could be seen with the naked eye. Conditions got even worse in 1816. With dimmed sunlight, colder temperatures became the norm. A frost killed most crops across upstate New York and northern New England. Then, on June 6, snow fell in Albany, N.Y., and as much as a foot of snow accumulated in Quebec City, Canada.
Where Did Summer Go?
The summer wasn’t completely missing. In fact, short periods of temperatures in the 80s and 90s were reported in July and August, as would be normal for that time of year. However, it was often followed by dramatic temperature swings dropping temperatures near or even below freezing. It was so cold that river and lake ice was reported in parts of northern Pennsylvania! Thanks to an ongoing series of frosts, the 1816 harvest was a complete failure, causing corn and grain prices to jump by 8 to 10 times.
Conditions were no better in the rest of the world. Harvests failed across Europe, causing the century’s worst famine in Great Britain and Germany. Major storms wreaked havoc on Europe, causing severe flooding on many of the continent’s rivers. Overall, an estimated 200,000 people were killed between the famine and floods. In China, the summer rice crop failed thanks to freezes and snow was reported as far south as Taiwan. In all, it is estimated that average surface temperatures dropped by at least 2 degrees worldwide.
The cultural impact of Tambora’s eruption wasn’t all bad. Americans set out toward the Mississippi Valley in search of richer soil, settling across the Heartland. Likewise, the crop failure meant that there weren’t enough oats for the horses, causing German inventor Karl Drais to create horseless transportation with the precursor to the bicycle.
Perhaps the most interesting cultural gift provided by that cold, wet summer came to us from Europe. Writers Mary Shelley, John William Polidori and Lord Byron were forced to remain indoors that summer due to “incessant rainfall,” having a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, the first short story about vampires, and believed to be one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Perhaps you’ve heard of the story written by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus?
Ash concentrations slowly diminished during the next few years, with unusual weather patterns lasting into the early 1820s. While no volcanic eruption has reached Tambora’s magnitude since, Krakatoa in 1883 and Pinatubo in 1991, both caused substantial temperature drops a year later across the Northern Hemisphere.
We want to thank WeatherBug Meteorologist Andrew Rosenthal for researching and writing this article!