1816: The Year Without A Summer


Have I missed something? It is mid-May, right? 

Two days ago I received an email from an English mystery-writer friend who is vacationing in Colorado after the Malice Domestic convention. “It’s snowing here,” she wrote. This morning I awoke to a weather report forecasting below-freezing temperatures in many parts of the upper Midwest. Including the part where I live. The winter of 2013 is going down in memory as The Winter That Refused To Go Away. 

At least things aren’t as bad as they were in 1816—at least not yet. That year is known as The Year Without a Summer or The Summer That Never Was or Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death. The unusually cold weather in 1816 was felt across the northern hemisphere but had the greatest impact in the northeastern United States, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe. 

In New England, the summer of 1816 witnessed snowfalls in May, June, and even early July. These were followed by nighttime frosts in July and August and killing frosts by early September. Crops failed, and food shortages led to the first mass migration from New England to the Midwest, shifting the center of farming in the U.S. forever. In Europe there were food riots. At least 200,000 died from hunger and a severe typhus epidemic. 

So what caused the unusual weather in 1816? At the time, some blamed it on God’s displeasure with the War of 1812 (which lasted until February of 1814). Others blamed it on Benjamin Franklin’s crazy experiments with lightning rods and electricity.  

Today, climate studies indicate that 1816 was the culmination of a “mini ice age” that lasted from 1400 to around 1860. In addition, the eruption on April 15, 1815, of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia spewed an estimated 1.7 million tons of ash into the atmosphere.  

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say.  

High levels of volcanic ash in the atmosphere led to unusually beautiful sunsets as captured in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. The lack of oats to feed horses gave the German inventor Karl Drais the brilliant idea for the “velocipede,” a method of horseless transportation that led to the modern bicycle. And the cold, wet weather kept Mary Shelley and a group of literary friends cooped up during a Swiss alpine holiday. To redeem the time, someone proposed a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Shelly’s offering was her novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Lord Byron’s was “A Fragment,” a short story which later inspired Polidori’s The Vampyre, a precursor to Dracula. 

I’m looking for the silver lining this summer. Maybe I’ll get a lot of writing done.

3 thoughts on “1816: The Year Without A Summer”

  1. You have no idea how very frustrated I am right now. Something with my wonky computer at home will not let me load your (and a few other’s) site, no matter what I do! Argh!!
    So, please know, I’m reading from my smart phone and will swing by when I’m away from home to leave a comment. So sorry, Connie.
    Now, onto your post – what a very cool bit of history! I loved this! I can’t imagine anyone not finding it interesting! Hope you are making progress with your book. Hope to read another snippet soon (hint. hint).
    cheers to you-

      1. yes, I got it and thank you for the sweet words. Life is slowly resuming to normal. I’ve joined an online historical writers critique group. What an amazing experience. Very tough, and I am learning so very much.
        This skin is getting thicker…

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