The year without summer

While the warmer weather of the past few days are a sign that summer is indeed coming, there once was a summer when it never did.

You see, next summer (2016) is the 200th anniversary of one of the most unusual climate anomalies in modern recorded history. It has a variety of nicknames, the most common being, “The Year Without a Summer”. Another, colorful, name is “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”. That name comes from this poem by Lee-Lee Schlegel:
“Months that should be Summer’s Prime
Sleet an Snow and Frost and Rime
Air so cold you see your breath
Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”
Large swaths of New England had a killing frost in each of the summer months in 1816, and significant snow fell in early June, along with inch-thick ice forming on ponds.
Check this out! (from Smithsonian Magazine):
“In the northeastern United States, the weather in mid-May of 1816 turned “backward”, as locals put it, with summer frost striking New England and as far south as Virginia. “In June … another snowfall came and folk went sleighing,” Pharaoh Chesney, of Virginia, would later recall. “On July 4th, water froze in cisterns and snow fell again, with Independence Day celebrants moving inside churches where hearth fires warmed things a mite.” Thomas Jefferson, having retired to Monticello after completing his second term as President, had such a poor corn crop that year that he applied for a $1,000 loan.”
Of course back then, your crops were your life, quite literally, and if crops failed, which they did that summer , incredible hardship and famine would result (and did).
So, what caused this incredibly cold summer? The answer: the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora the year before, halfway around the world. This eruption ejected so much particulate into the high atmosphere, that the energy received from the sun was significantly reduced. This was the direct cause of the unusually cold summer.
By the way, the “non-summer” affected the entire Northern Hemisphere, and the weather was so cold and uninviting in Geneva, Switzerland, that Mary Shelley and her friends stayed in quite a bit, writing ghost stories, as cold rains drummed outside. She ended up penning a story I suspect you might have heard of. It’s called “Frankenstein”.
Ted Shapiro holds the Broadcast Seal of Approval from both the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. An Alexandria, Va. native, he has been chief meteorologist at WAGM-TV since 2006. Email him at tshapiro@ wagmtv.com.