This is the true story of a devastating year of cold weather that brought summer snow storms and wiped out crops, resulting in famine in North America and Europe.
Snow In July?
When we visit historical sites and pioneer villages, I like to buy the little booklets and diaries about the families that lived there. Years ago, I read one that mentioned in passing that in the early 1800’s there was a summer snowstorm in Waterloo Region (southern Ontario, Canada).
Snow in July? Here? That sounded unbelievable to me and (pre-internet) I began looking for other references. While it is not out of the question to have some snow in May, a killing frost or snowstorm in July would be incredible.
The 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora (Indonesia)
Turns out, the article was probably referring to the summer of 1816. Apparently, a significant volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 caused highly unusual weather around the globe over the next year.
- It was the earth’s worst volcanic eruption in over 1300 years. Huge amounts of volcanic dust was sent into the upper atmosphere compounding this era of already diminished solar activity* and cooler temperatures.
- In short, the sunlight just could not fully get through to the earth’s surface. The result was extreme cold (and some heat), incessant rains, summer snowstorms, and flooding.
*The Dalton Minimum was a period of low solar activity, lasting from about 1790 to 1830, which resulted in a period of global cooling.
Summer Frosts and Snowstorms
The effects were felt around the globe:
- Eastern Canada and New England had frosts and snow from May to August, as well as unusually high temperatures. Crops were destroyed, replanted and destroyed again.
- Unaware of the volcanic eruption or its ability to disrupt weather, newly settled farmers in New England blamed their locations and uprooted to settle farther west.
- Food was scarce and famine ensued in these areas as well as parts of Europe and China.
While there was a significant rise in deaths (twice the usual annual total) and suffering, there were some other interesting side effects.
- The painter Turner is said to have painted his famous yellow-based sunsets to represent the unusual yellow tinge the sky took on during this time.
- Many reported the most brilliant sunsets as the light made its way through the volcanic dust.
- The ‘incessant rains’ of 1816 drove Mary Shelley indoors for her Swiss holiday providing her time to write Frankenstein.