‘The Year Without a Summer’

  • Valley News — Shawn Braley Valley News — Shawn Braley

For the Valley News
Published: 6/27/2016 10:00:22 PM
Modified: 6/29/2016 3:49:49 PM

Weather and climate are always topics for conversation. The current news gives us plenty to consider. Worldwide, 2015 was the hottest year on record, just a bit warmer than 2014. Climate change and the impact of El Nino greatly diminished the most recent winter.

But 200 years ago this month, one of northern New England’s most unusual summers was just about to get started. In a region where changeable weather is the norm, 1816 was really abnormal. It was a year with a lost summer. It was a year that was talked about for decades and spawned both scientific studies and folktales.

Information for this account comes from state and town histories, old newspaper articles and The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History by William and Nicholas Klingaman.

The 500 years before 1816 were part of a period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age. Settlers in the region experienced unusually late and early frosts from time to time. In 1783, Thomas Johnson of Newbury, Vt., reported that a frost on Aug. 9 killed most of the corn crop. The decade following 1810 was for many the coldest 10-year period in the history of North America.

At the time, there were a number of explanations for the abnormal weather. These ranged from unusual sunspots and the use of lightning rods to God’s displeasure toward a sinful society. Current scientific evidence points to unusual volcanic activity.

In 1809 there were several powerful eruptions in remote tropical locations. In 1812 there were two volcanic eruptions in the Indian Ocean, and another in the Philippines in 1814. But the most significant eruption was at Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago beginning on April 5, 1815. A series of eruptions pulverized the mountain, sending ash, dust and soot up to 25 miles into the atmosphere.

The noise of the blast could be heard over 800 miles away. It is estimated that 15,000 residents in the vicinity of the volcano died from the blast, the ash and the resulting tsunami, while another 80,000 died in the ensuing year from disease and starvation.

Within 24 hours, a giant mushroom-shaped ash cloud had covered hundreds of square miles. It was later determined that the eruption was the largest in thousands of years and was 100 times stronger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state.

In addition to millions of tons of ash, a giant aerosol cloud of sulfuric acid formed. Both ash and aerosol became suspended in the atmosphere and spread around the world by wind patterns. The particulate matters reflected sunlight, resulting in cooler temperatures and abnormal weather.

Almost immediately, residents of Europe and North America noticed spectacular sunsets caused by the particles and gases in the atmosphere. New England experienced frosts in late August and snow in September 1815. When snow fell that winter it was often tainted brown or red.

The winter of 1815-16 was milder. The Middlebury (Vt.) Register reported that “January was so mild that fires were allowed to go out except for cooking purposes.” By early March much of the snow was gone and the Northeast experienced early spring thunderstorms.

The Klingamans explain that this mild winter was partly the result of the Tambora cloud. Its interaction with the atmosphere led to fewer polar incursions than normal. As spring arrived, however, cold air was free to move down from the Arctic, setting up North America and Europe for “a chilly spring and a disastrous summer.”

Residents of Northern New England were not fully prepared for what was to come. Most residents were subsistence farmers, depending on annual crops for their food and as fodder for cattle. In the previous decade, several major epidemics of spotted and lung fevers had sickened and killed many.

Early spring rains and warming temperatures led to “expectations of a fruitful season and an abundant harvest,” wrote Vermont historian Abby Hemenway in 1877, citing earlier sources. Late April brought a heat wave and many regional farmers planted their crops as temperatures reached the low 80s.

May turned cold as Canadian air flowed south bringing freezing temperatures and snow to New England. Jacob Ide of St. Johnsbury recalled that temperatures “were like that of winter.” Early buds on plants froze. On May 16 snow fell all day in some portions of the two states.

Temperatures during the first several days of June were mild. But on June 5 a winter jet stream caused temperatures to plummet and then a freak blizzard followed. Snow and hail fell throughout Vermont and New Hampshire with some places receiving up to 12 inches of snow with drifts to 3 feet.

Over the next three weeks, the region endured snow and cold temperatures of unprecedented severity for June. Not every day was cold, but the cumulative impact on residents was harsh. Ide recalled that “June was the coldest month of roses ever experienced. Frost and ice were as common as buttercups usually are.”

Sheep that had recently been shorn froze to death. Birds that could not find shelter died. Early crops and leaves were destroyed. Farmers could not work their fields. Bricklayers in Bath, N.H., had to quit working because their mortar froze. Residents wore winter garments. Most agreed it was beyond anything they had ever experienced.

Unaware of the impact of the volcano, residents sought answers for the unusual weather. Some claimed it was the appearance of large sunspots. Others suggested unusual amounts of ice in the Great Lakes and North Atlantic or the cooling of the Earth’s core. Use of lightning rods, earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley, a great comet in 1811 and the impact of deforestation were also blamed.

Many saw the hand of God at work. It was widely believed that God controlled the natural world and used its manifestations to carry out His will. Perhaps this unusual weather reflected God’s displeasure at a decadent society or maybe it was a foreshadowing of the apocalypse. New Hampshire Gov. William Plumer, who took office in June 1816, admonished residents to be mindful of their transgressions. Still in its infancy, meteorology was not available to offer meaningful scientific answers.

Almanacs for 1816 predicted hot weather for July, a forecast that did not come to pass. July 4 was cool, followed by frosts throughout Northern New England on July 8 and 9. Mt. Moosilauke was white twice that month. When warmer temperatures returned in late July, farmers were encouraged to plant oats and late corn. Livestock suffered from lack of fodder and some farmers mowed fields of immature corn to feed them.

During this entire summer, Vermont experienced a severe drought. Water levels in rivers, lakes and wells sank. Smoke from forest fires blackened the sky, blocking the sun and obscuring views everywhere.

By early August, fears of a general famine had subsided as hopes for a harvest of some grains seemed possible. In both Claremont and Lebanon it was reported that there was a “bountiful crop of rye.” In some communities the wheat crop survived.

On Aug. 13, a cold wave hit the region with frost. After a brief warmer period, frost on Aug. 21 and again on Aug. 28 and 29, caused residents to abandon those hopes. Some built fires around their fields in a vain attempt to save their crops.

Samuel Morey of Orford experimented with cutting the immature corn stalks and stacking them in stooks, a method that resulted in the ripening of some kernels. On Sept. 5 he wrote that the area seemed threatened with “severe scarcity.” Later he wrote that the frost of the 28th “has put an end to the hopes of many corn growers.” Colonel W. H. Hoffman of Lebanon is quoted as saying “there was only six bushels of sound corn raised in the town that year.”

September only added to the misery of area residents. During the second half of the month, black or dry frosts killed vegetation, turning it black. The editor of the Vermont Journal wrote: “Never before in this vicinity (had the weather) appeared more gloomy and cheerless than at present. It is extremely cold for the time of year, and the drought was never before so severe.” In Hartford as in other communities, water on ponds and rivers froze “to some thickness.”

October and November offered no improvement. While there was finally some rain, 12 inches of snow fell in Haverhill on Oct. 17. The winter of 1816-17 was bitter cold. Snow fell in some towns on May 5, 1817. While the months that followed provided some relief, it took another year for conditions to return to normal.

This disruptive weather had a lingering effect on residents. While there was starvation elsewhere in the world, local residents made do without normal supplies of foodstuffs. Grain prices rose. One local businessman brought a flatboat of grain from Connecticut up the Connecticut River and sold it at greatly inflated prices. In towns such as Newbury and Peacham, Vt., desperate farmers sought to sell what little they had at similarly high prices.

Many who had not tasted oatmeal before came to rely on it. It had been introduced into the area by the Scottish settlers of Ryegate, Vt. The mill at Boltonville, on the Wells River, ran full time to grind the oats to meet the demand. Some traded maple syrup for fish brought from the Atlantic or Lake Champlain. Others ate what they could trap or forage, including wild plants, pigeons and even an occasional hedgehog.

The History of Ryegate quotes one Newbury elder who recalled that “children would talk about being good, for perhaps they would die when winter came, and would have nothing to eat.” Farmers had to decide whether to eat their meager corn crop or save it for seed. The drought only added to residents’ plight as wells dropped and mills lacked water power.

The poor weather conditions gave one more excuse to move westward. Many wondered if the climate had changed permanently and gave in to “Ohio fever.” Some communities in Vermont and New Hampshire lost major portions of their population as discouraged families sought new opportunities in the Midwest.

New England was not the only region to suffer from the impact of Tambora. Areas in the Midwest and as far south as Virginia experienced cold spells during the period and to varying degrees suffered crop destruction from unseasonable frost, snow and drought. Peasant farmers from Quebec to major areas of Asia experienced especially hard times.

Europeans also suffered greatly as crops failed from both cold temperatures and heavy rainfall. A poor harvest in 1815 was followed by an even poorer one in 1816. Many crops just did not grow. This destructive weather added to the economic and social displacement of the recent Napoleonic wars.

Throughout Europe, farmers sold off their livestock, depressing prices. Unemployment rose. Food prices increased as grain supplies diminished. In some areas bread prices tripled. Neither private nor government charity were able to deal with the magnitude of the problems created by the economic situation.

Outbreaks of disease throughout Europe added to the people’s plight. They reacted by filling churches to offer prayers for relief, by rioting against both bakers and authorities or by migrating for better opportunities elsewhere. Large numbers of Europeans sought relief in the United States.

“Year without a summer,” “1816 and froze to death,” “the mackerel year,” “the poverty year” are all titles given to the disruptions experienced by so many Northern New Englanders during the period. Years later, many elders recalled the difficulties of residents in the two-state area. As with stories told and retold, enhancements tended to creep in.

Since settlers first came to this region, they have experienced anomalies in the weather and changes in the climate. There have been colder single weeks than those of 1816, deeper snow banks and more severe droughts, but none equal the continued onslaught of bad weather experienced in 1816.

Elders like to recall that snow was deeper and winters more severe when they were young. They remind their listeners that in the last century no one would plant their gardens until Memorial Day and would expect the first frost just after Labor Day. Climate change has changed that.

A review of the weather of 200 years ago reminds us that events that occur half a world away can have a profound impact on our way of life and that large areas of the planet are just one poor harvest away from disaster. It is well to recall that a volcanic eruption, melting glaciers, warm water in the Pacific or automobile omissions elsewhere can influence when we plant our tomatoes and how much fuel we will burn next winter.

Larry Coffin is president of the Bradford Historical Society. His other articles can be found at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.

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