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Development of global average temperatures during the last thousand years.
A significant drop shortly after 1800 is visible in the majority of concurrent reconstructions.
The Year Without a Summer (also known as the Poverty Year, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death, and the Year There Was No Summer) was 1816, in which severe summer climate abnormalities destroyed crops in Northern Europe, the Northeastern United States and eastern Canadamarker.Historian John D. Post has called this "the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world".

Most consider the climate anomaly to have been caused by a combination of a historic low in solar activity and a volcanic winter event; the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped off by the Mount Tamboramarker eruption of 1815, the largest known eruption in over 1,600 years.


The unusual climatic aberrations of 1816 had the greatest effect on the Northeastern United States, New Englandmarker, the Canadian Maritimes, Newfoundlandmarker, and Northern Europe. Typically, the late spring and summer of the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada are relatively stable: temperatures (average of both day and night) average about 68–77 °F (20–25 °C), and rarely fall below 41 °F (5 °C). Summer snow is an extreme rarity, though May flurries sometimes occur.

In May 1816, however, frost killed off most of the crops that had been planted, and in June two large snowstorms in eastern Canada and New England resulted in many human deaths. Nearly a foot (30 cm) of snow was observed in Quebec Citymarker in early June, with consequent additional loss of crops—most summer-growing plants have cell walls which rupture in a mild frost, let alone a snowstorm coating the soils. The result was regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality—in short, famine.

In July and August, lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvaniamarker. Rapid, dramatic temperature swings were common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures as high as 95 °F (35 °C) to near-freezing within hours. Even though farmers south of New Englandmarker did succeed in bringing some crops to maturity, maize and other grain prices rose dramatically. Oats, for example, rose from 12¢ a bushel ($ 0/m³) the previous year to 92¢ a bushel ($ /m³)—nearly eight times as much—and oats are a necessary staple for an economy dependent upon horses for primary transportation. Those areas suffering local crop failures then had to deal with the lack of roads in the early 19th century, preventing any easy importation of bulky food stuffs.

In China, the cold weather killed trees, rice crops and even water buffalo, especially in northern China. Floods destroyed many remaining crops. Mount Tambora’s eruption disrupted China’s monsoon season, resulting in overwhelming floods in the Yangtze Valleymarker in 1816. In India the delayed summer monsoon caused late torrential rains that aggravated the spread of cholera from a region near the River Ganges in Bengal to as far as Moscow.

In the ensuing bitter winter of 1817, when the thermometer dropped to -26°F (-32 °C), the waters of New York's Upper Baymarker froze so hard that horse-drawn sleighs were driven across Buttermilk Channelmarker from Brooklyn to Governors Island.

The effects were widespread and lasted beyond the winter. In eastern Switzerland, the summers of 1816 and 1817 were so cool that an ice dam formed below a tongue of the Giétro Glaciermarker high in the Val de Bagnesmarker; in spite of the efforts of the engineer Ignaz Venetz to drain the growing lake, the ice dam collapsed catastrophically in June 1818.


It is now generally thought that the aberrations occurred because of the 1815 (April 5–15) volcanic eruptions of Mount Tamboramarker on the island of Sumbawamarker, Indonesia (then part of the Dutch East Indiesmarker). It was the world's largest eruption in about 1,600 years with a Volcanic Explosivity Index ranking of 7, a super-colossal event that ejected immense amounts of volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere. (Lake Taupo's Hatepe eruption of c. 180 AD was probably of similar size, see Supervolcano.) The fact that the 1815 eruptions occurred during the middle of the Dalton Minimum (a period of unusually low solar activity) is also significant.

Other large volcanic eruptions (with VEI at least 4) during the same time frame are:

These other eruptions had already built up a substantial amount of atmospheric dust. As is common following a massive volcanic eruption, temperatures fell worldwide because less sunlight passed through the atmosphere.


As a consequence of the series of volcanic eruptions, crops in the above cited areas had been poor for several years; the final blow came in 1815 with the eruption of Tambora. In the United States, many historians cite the "Year Without a Summer" as a primary motivation for the western movement and rapid settlement of what is now western and central New York and the American Midwest. Many New Englanders were wiped out by the year, and tens of thousands struck out for the richer soil and better growing conditions of the Upper Midwest (then the Northwest Territory).

Europe, still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in Britainmarker and Francemarker and grain warehouses were looted. The violence was worst in landlocked Switzerlandmarker, where famine caused the government to declare a national emergency. Huge storms, abnormal rainfall with floodings of the major rivers of Europe (including the Rhinemarker) are attributed to the event, as was the frost setting in during August 1816. A major typhus epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816-19, precipitated by the famine caused by a the Year Without a Summer. It is estimated that 100,000 Irish perished during this period. A BBC documentary using figures compiled in Switzerland estimated that fatality rates in 1816 were twice that of average years, giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths.

The eruption of Tambora also caused Hungarymarker to experience brown snow. Italymarker experienced something similar, with red snow falling throughout the year. The cause of this is believed to have been volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

In Chinamarker, unusually low temperatures in summer and fall devastated rice production in Yunnanmarker province in the southwest, resulting in widespread famine. Fort Shuangcheng, now in Heilongjiangmarker province, reported fields disrupted by frost and conscripts deserting as a result. Summer snowfall was reported in various locations in Jiangximarker and Anhuimarker provinces, both in the south of the country. In Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, snow was reported in Hsinchumarker and Miaoli, while frost was reported in Changhuamarker.

Cultural effects

High levels of ash in the atmosphere led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, a feature celebrated in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. It has been theorised that it was this that gave rise to the yellow tinge that is predominant in his paintings such as Chichester Canal circa 1828. A similar phenomenon was observed after the 1883 Krakatoamarker eruption, and on the West Coast of the United States following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubomarker in the Philippines.

The lack of oats to feed horses may have inspired the German inventor Karl Drais to research new ways of horseless transportation, which led to the invention of the Draisine or velocipede. This was the ancestor of the modern bicycle and a step towards mechanized personal transport.

The crop failures of the “Year without Summer” forced the family of Joseph Smith to move from Sharon, Vermont to Palmyra, New York , precipitating a series of events culminating in the publication of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In July 1816 "incessant rainfall" during that "wet, ungenial summer" forced Mary Shelley, John William Polidori and their friends to stay indoors for much of their Swiss holiday. They decided to have a contest, seeing who could write the scariest story, leading Shelley to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Polidori to write The Vampyre.

The Year without a Summer also inspired Lord Byron to write his 1816 poem Darkness.

The chemist Justus von Liebig, who had experienced the famine as a child in Darmstadt, later studied the nutrition of plants and introduced mineral fertilizers.

Comparable events

See also


  1. Saint John New Brunswick Time Date
  2. The Quebec Chapter of the Canada Country Study Climate Impacts and Adaptation executive summary
  3. Evans, Robert Blast from the Past, Smithsonian Magazine. July 2002
  4. Weather Doctor's Weather People and History: Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death, The Year There Was No Summer
  5. Discovery Extreme Earth
  6. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford University Press) 1999:494.
  7. The flood is fully described in Jean M. Grove, Little Ice Ages, Ancient and Modern (as The Little Ice Age 1988) rev. ed. 2004:161.
  8. Indo Digest
  9. : Misc
  11. Histories: Brimstone and bicycles - being-human - 29 January 2005 - New Scientist
  12. Discovery Channel, "Extreme Earth"

Additional reading

  • BBC Timewatch documentary: Year Without Summer, Cicada Films (BBC2, 27 May 2005)
  • Willie Soon and Steven H.Yaskell:Year without a Summer, Vol. 32, # 3 May / June, Mercury (Astronomical Society of the Pacific) 2003
  • Hans-Erhard Lessing: Automobilitaet: Karl Drais und die unglaublichen Anfaenge, Leipzig 2003
  • Henry & Elizabeth Stommel: Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816, the Year without a Summer, Seven Seas Press, Newport RI 1983 ISBN 0-915160-71-4
  • The Story of the Year of Cold, by Dozier, Lou Zerr Press, 2009

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