Search this blog

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

1816: the year without a summer

A wet day on the beach in Weymouth, Dorset
We might joke that you can blink and miss the English summer, but what if it really was cancelled this year?

Two hundred years ago, in 1816, people in England and much of Europe were bemused by a summer that was noticeably colder and wetter than usual. This was bad news for a society that depended largely on a good harvest for its wellbeing. It was even worse news for nations ravaged by the recent Napoleonic wars.

1816: the year without a summer

A priest in northern Portugal wrote:
“July of 1816 was a particularly unusual month concerning both rainfall and temperature. I am 78 years old and I have never seen so much rain and cold, not even in winter months.” (1)
Scientist Luke Howard (1772-1864), who kept detailed records of the weather in London for forty years from 1801, noted that much of 1816 was wetter and colder than usual. In September he toured parts of Europe and observed that along the length of the Rhine:
“Not meadows and villages alone but portions of cities and large towns lay long underwater; dikes were broken, bridges blown up, the crops spoiled or carried off by torrents and the vintage ruined by the want of sun to bring out and ripen the fruit.” (2)
The Times newspaper of 13 July 1816 reported that heavy rain in Switzerland and Germany had led the Rhine to flood in Holland. 
“Farmers who had cut their hay eight days ago have lost the whole, it is all washed away; the grass which is yet standing is now rotting in the ground.” (3)
Flood waters in Weymouth, Dorset, in 2012
The eastern United States was also affected by the adverse weather. Six inches of snow fell across New England on 6 June 1816. This and continued heavy frosts destroyed crops and killed livestock. Famine drove people to eat hedgehogs, nettles and pigeons.

The effects of the exceptionally cold year stretched into future years. In 1817-18, the price of bread almost doubled as supplies of grain and flour ran short. Over half a million barrels of flour came into Liverpool in 1818, the year that Britain imported more food than ever before.

Britain, with its well-developed trade network and relatively easy access to ports, was not as badly impacted by food shortages as other nations. Areas where travel was more difficult, such as central Europe, saw food prices spiral and people going hungry. Demonstrations, riots and looting were not uncommon, as people were desperate to express their frustration and feed their families.

Did the poor summer of 1816 create a monster?

The bad weather in England drove a group of writers to head for Switzerland. On arrival, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his young lover, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), enjoyed a few days of good weather before being driven indoors by continued storms and rain.
“It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house,” wrote Mary Shelley in 1831. “‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to.” (4)
As a result, Mary was inspired to write Frankenstein, creating a monster that’s become an established character in popular culture.

Frontispiece of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1831 edition)
The cause of the year without a summer

Modern scientific study now links the poor weather of 1816 to a massive volcanic eruption in April 1815, on the other side of the world.

Mount Tambora, on the small Sumbawa Island in Indonesia, exploded dramatically in mid-April 1815. The eruption was the largest volcanic event for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. It threw around 160 cubic kilometres of material into the atmosphere, which would have been enough to cover the entire surface of the UK in ash up to 45 cm (18 inches) deep.

The eruption killed tens of thousands of people and could be heard hundreds of miles away. But in 1815, news travelled more slowly than soundwaves and it was months before the story of the eruption reached Britain.

Even then, no one understood the impact the event would have on the weather. It’s taken scientists nearly two hundred years to connect the Mount Tambora eruption with the dismal summer of 1816 and its consequences.

Aerial view of the caldera of Mount Tambora,
Sumbawa, Indonesia - photo by Jialiang Gao (6)
Reports from the scene of the Mount Tambora eruption

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), Lieutenant Governor of British Java, recorded and published accounts of the eruption.
“The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of the 5th of April; they were noticed in every quarter, and continued at intervals until the following day. The noise was in the first instance almost universally attributed to distant cannon.” (5)
“On the following morning, however, a slight fall of ashes removed all doubt as to the cause of the sound, and it is worthy of remark, that as the Eruption continued, the sound appeared to be so close that in each district it seemed near at hand.” (5)
The inhabitants of Java thought that a nearer volcano had erupted, but in reality, the source was hundreds of miles away.
“From the 6th, the sun became observed: it had everywhere the appearance of being enveloped in fog, the weather was sultry and the atmosphere close and still; the sun seemed shorn of its rays, and the general stillness and pressure of the atmosphere foreboded an Earthquake.” (5)
In the following days, the sky filled with ash. Some accounts talk of days being so unnaturally dark that candles were needed throughout and visibility was reduced to a few metres.

An account from a sailor recorded:
“On the 11th April, while at sea far distant form Sumbawa, he was in utter darkness; that on his passing the Tomboro Mountain at a distance of 5 miles, the lower part of it was in flames, and the upper part covered with clouds; he went on shore for water and found the ground covered with ashes to the depth of three feet, several large prows thrown on the land by a concussion of the sea, and many of the Inhabitants dead from famine.” (5)
Some reported how for miles the surface of the sea was covered in a solid mass of pumice stone, up to several feet deep.

View in Bima, Sumbawa, Indonesia from The Cruise of the Marchesa (1887)
Cold weather and dramatic sunsets

Today, science tells us that the volcanic eruption created a huge cloud of sulphur. Over the following months this spread across much of the world, acting as an almost invisible barrier to the heating effect of the sun.

The painter Joseph Turner (1775-1851) is famous for his moody skies and rich sunsets. The colours of these dramatic sunsets were affected by the sulphur in the sky following volcanic eruptions: Tambora in 1815, Babuyan in the Philippines in 1831 and Cosiguina in Nicaragua in 1835. Study has shown that when the air was dirtiest, the sunsets were reddest.

Although Turner’s most famous sunsets were painted after these later eruptions, we can be fairly confident that there must have been some spectacular sunsets in 1816 too. A small compensation for those who had to endure the year without a summer.

Sunset? by JMW Turner © Tate (1856)
Used under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (unported)
Notes
(1) From Iberia in 1816, the year without a summer by RM Trigo et al (2008).
(2) From The Climate of London by Luke Howard (1818).
(3) From The Times newspaper Saturday July 13 1816 p3 © Times Digital Newspaper Archive
(4) From the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1831).
(5) From Narrative of the Effects of the Eruption from the Tomboro Mountain by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1816).
(6) Photo by Jialiang Gao (peace-on-earth.org) under a Creative Commons licence via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources include
Howard, Luke, The Climate of London: Deduced from Meteorological Observations (1818)
Raffles, Sir Thomas, Narrative of the Effects of the Eruption from the Tomboro Mountain, in the island of Sumbawa on the 11th and 12th April 1815 (1816)
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein (1831 edition)
Trigo, RM, Vaquero, JM, Alcoforado, M, Barriendos, M, Taborda, J, Garcia-Herrera, R and Luterbacher, J, Iberia in 1816, the year without a summer in the International Journal of Climatology © Royal Meteorological Society (2008)

TheGuardian.com website
Times Newspaper Archive Online

5 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the article very much and found it very interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The year without a summer is up in the top few natural disasters in the world in written history. The number of deaths are probably incalculable, from famine, and mostly Typhus, which not only was easier to catch by those in a state of starvation but which spread as people huddled together, too cold to wash, as the lice carrying it scrambled from one to another.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I knew a little about the volcano eruption so thankyou for such an interesting article with so much more detail and contemporary information. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I wonder at whether the lingering effects led to my Welsh ancestors leaving for America in the Spring of 1818

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe, but America was affected too, so I expect other factors were involved.

      Delete