by Ishaan Tharoor • Washington Post
As summer approaches, many in the United States will be awaiting warmer, balmier days. It’s a prospect keenly felt right now by those in the nation’s capital, which has endured two weeks of ceaseless rain.
But things could be much worse. Two hundred years ago, the U.S. Eastern Seaboard registered record-low temperatures. On June 6, 1816, six inches of snow fell across wide swaths of New England. “The heads of all the mountains on every side were crowned with snow,” one area farmer wrote. “The most gloomy and extraordinary weather ever seen.”
A Connecticut clockmaker recalled at the time having to wear an overcoat and mittens for much of the summer; another bookkeeper noted in his diary that “the vegetation does not seem to advance at all.” Frosts set in and crops failed. In Montreal, there were reports of frozen birds dropping dead on the city streets. Denizens of Vermont were forced to subsist on “nettles, wild turnips and hedgehogs.”
These early Americans probably did not know the cause of the epic cold spell: A year prior, after months of rumbling, a colossal eruption occurred at Mount Tambora, on a small island in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia. Millions of tons of ash and sulfurous gas went dozens of miles up into the stratosphere, creating a kind of dusty veil around the planet and plunging part of Asia in darkness.
As my colleagues in the Capital Weather Gang wrote last year, it is perhaps the most explosive geological event in historical record. “Tambora’s blasts and the tsunamis they caused killed an estimated 92,000 people, including those who starved to death because the explosion of debris killed livestock and crops,” The Post wrote.
A British colonial officer surveying the aftermath painted a bleak, desperate picture of the eruption’s effect on its immediate surrounds: “The extreme misery to which the inhabitants have been reduced is shocking to behold. There were still on the road side the remains of several corpses, and the marks of where many others had been interred: the villages almost entirely deserted and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having dispersed in search of food.”
As scientists know now, the volcano’s blast also had more wide-ranging effects. The debris circling the stratosphere led to cooler temperatures in 1816 and drastically affected weather patterns. Droughts and unseasonal flooding eventually spurred a devastating cholera epidemic in India, heralding a new strain that would later spread across the world. Harvests were ruined from China to the United States, leading to widespread famine and suffering. The speculation that followed in U.S. agriculture after 1816 would eventually trigger the United States’ first financial crisis, three years later.
“Never were such hard times,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, whose own Virginia estate faced crippling debts.
1816 became known famously as “The Year Without Summer.” In New England, it got the nickname “Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death,” while grain shortages in what’s now Germany led 1816 to be called “The Year of the Beggar.” Much of Europe was just emerging from a generation of Napoleonic warfare and was ill-equipped to cope with failing harvests.
The terrible conditions sparked westward migrations — from Europe to the United States, and from the Eastern Seaboard to less harsh climes. In the United States, they led to the emergence of particular religious communities in western lands, from Presbyterian groups to what would eventually be the Mormons. And they also led to the formation of the first avowedly abolitionist churches among pioneering settlers.
They inspired the culture, as well.
A new app, “Summer of Darkness,” chronicles what happened when a group of British holidaygoers attempted to summer by the shores of Lac Leman in Geneva. Their desired sunny idyll was ruined by the year’s weather, which was cold and unforgiving.
“At first,” wrote the poet and author Mary Shelley, “we spent our pleasant hours on the lake or wandering on its shores. But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” That confinement, it’s believed, led to her drafting the nightmarish story that we now know as “Frankenstein.”
Lord Byron, another eminence in the group, penned his poem “Darkness,” where “The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space,/Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth/Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.” It was a moment, as Byron wrote, when “men forgot their passions in the dread/Of this their desolation; and all hearts/Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.”