The Global Impact of the Year Without a Summer

The Global Impact of the Year Without a Summer


The year 1816 was the first since the onset
of the French Revolutionary Wars in which the western world was at peace. In Europe, the nightmare of the Napoleonic
Wars began to fade. In North America, Washington DC began the
process of rebuilding after being burned by the British Army during the War of 1812. Global commerce was expected to thrive, unimpeded
by the raiding ships of nations locked in a death grip with each other. Farmers expected strong markets for their
crops, shippers looked forward to record profits, manufacturers hoped the return of peace would
create demand for their products. But then a funny thing happened. There was no summer. As late as August of that year, hard freezes
in the farmlands of upper New York and New England destroyed what little crops had been
planted during a spring of continuous snow and freezing weather. 1816 was the year of no summer, not just in
North America, but across the Northern Hemisphere. Record cold, freezing rains, floods, and frosts
occurred throughout the months in which warmer weather could be reasonably expected, given
centuries of its showing up more or less on schedule. It did not, and without global communication
to understand why, the underpinnings of civilization – farming and trade – suffered across
the globe. The year with no summer is now understood
to have been the result of a series of geological events which masked the sun with volcanic
dust, but to those who endured it, it was simply an inexplicable disaster. The commercial effects continued to be felt
for years, as financial markets roiled from the unexpected disruption of trade and investment. For those unconcerned with climate change
it remains a stark, though wholly ignored, warning of the power of nature. Here are just a few of its impacts. 10. Thomas Jefferson found his indebtedness increased
by drastic crop failures In 1815 former president Thomas Jefferson,
living in retirement at his Monticello estate, offered his personal library as replacement
for the losses suffered by the Library of Congress when the British burned the American
capital. The sale was a gesture which gained Jefferson
some temporary praise, but more importantly to him it provided an infusion of badly needed
money. The former president was broke, and the $23,950
(almost $400,000 today) he received alleviated some, but by no means all, of his indebtedness. Jefferson was relying on a strong crop from
his Virginia farms in 1816 to reduce his debts further. In his Farm Book for 1816 Jefferson noted
the unusual cold as early as May; “repeated frosts have killed the early fruits and the
crops of tobacco and wheat will be poor,” he wrote. Jefferson struggled with the bizarre weather
throughout the summer months, recording temperature and rainfall data still used by scientists
studying the phenomenon, but he was unaware of its cause. He did lament its effect. Jefferson’s corn and wheat crops were reduced
by two thirds, his tobacco even more so, and the former president slipped yet more deeply
into debt, as did most of the farmers of the American states of Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky,
Tennessee, and all of New York and New England. The failure of tobacco crops was particularly
devastating, ships which normally would have carried the cured leaves to Europe lay idle,
and British tobacconists shifted to plantations in Africa as the source of the weed, in high
demand in Europe. During the summer, Jefferson reported frosts
in every month of the year in the higher elevations of Virginia, and in every state north of his
farms. 9. Prices of grains spiked as the summer went
on, and remained high for nearly three years In Virginia, oats were a crop which was considered
essential to the survival of the economy. Oats were consumed by humans in the form of
porridge, and in oat breads and cakes, but the grain was also an essential part of the
diet of horses. Horses were of course critical in the early
19th century as motive power for plows and transportation. The shortage of oats caused the farmers who
produced it to respond to the insatiable demand for the grain by raising their prices on the
little they were able to harvest. According to Jefferson and other Virginia
farmers, oats cost roughly 12 cents per bushel in 1815, a price already inflated by the demand
placed on the crops by the recently ended War of 1812, when armies needed horses for
cavalry and as draft animals. By midsummer of 1816, oats had increased to
nearly $1 per bushel, an increase which most were unable to pay. The shortage of grain, (as well as other fodder)
meant what horses were available were often undernourished. European markets were unable to make up the
shortage, as Europe too was locked in the grip of the low temperatures and excessive
rains. In Europe the cost of maintaining horses increased
dramatically, and the use of horseback for individual travel became the privilege of
the wealthy few. A German tinkerer and inventor by the name
of Karl Drais began experimenting with a device consisting of a piece of wood equipped with
a seat upon which a person would perch while moving the legs in a manner similar to walking. Called variously the velocipede, the laufmaschine,
and the draisine, it was the precursor for what is now known as the bicycle. 8. Temperatures throughout the Northern Hemisphere
were abnormally cold, especially in New England The New England states were particularly hard
hit during the summer of 1816 by abnormally low temperatures. In the New England states, which were at the
time still mostly agricultural, every month of the year suffered at least one hard frost,
devastating crops in the fields and the fruit trees which had managed to blossom during
the long and wet spring. On June 6, a Plymouth, Connecticut clockmaker
noted in his diary that six inches of snow had fallen overnight, and he was forced to
wear heavy mittens and his greatcoat during his customary walk to his shop. Sheep were a product of many New England farms,
well adapted to grazing on the hillsides in pastures too small to accommodate cattle herds. Shorn in late winter, as was customary, many
died in the unexpected cold, and the price of lamb and mutton reached record highs. By the end of June, temperatures in New England
had begun a rollercoaster ride which they would retain for the rest of the summer, further
damaging crops and livestock. Late June in western Massachusetts saw temperatures
reach 101 degrees only to plummet to the 30s over the Fourth of July. Men went about in their hayfields harvesting
their sparse yields dressed in overcoats. Beans – long a staple crop of New England
– froze in the fields. From Puritan pulpits across the region, the
weather was attributed to a righteous judgment of God. In August there was measurable snowfall in
Vermont, and though winter wheat crops yielded some harvests, the cost of moving the grain
to market was often prohibitive. New Englanders, especially in the rural areas,
began to forage off the land in the manner of their ancestors, surviving on what game
and wild plants they could find in the woods. 7. The lack of summer provided one of literature’s
most infamous characters Most people had no idea what were the scientific
reasons behind the bizarre weather in the summer months of 1816. Many of the wealthy, better able to weather
the storm, so to speak, went about their business despite the adverse weather conditions. In Europe, a group of young English writers
and their guests summered at Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The group included Lord Byron and an English
poet named Percy Shelley, who brought with him his wife, the former Mary Wollstonecraft. Housebound by the continuing inclement weather
(Mary later wrote that it was an ungenial summer), the group was forced to find ways
to entertain themselves. Bored of playing parlor games one of the members,
probably Lord Byron, suggested that each member of the group write a story, along the lines
of a ghost story, for the entertainment of the rest. Mrs. Shelley at first balked at the idea,
unable to come up with a plot until mid-July, when she confided to her diary that at the
group’s nightly discussions she arrived at the idea of “Perhaps a corpse could be
reanimated.” She began writing a short story, which grew
into a full length gothic novel which she entitled, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern
Prometheus.” Her husband was later credited with assisting
Mary with the work, though the extent of his contributions to the classic tale of horror
remains disputed by scholars. Mary Shelley later credited her inspiration
to a waking dream which came upon her during one of her long walks in the woods around
Geneva, immersed in the gloom of the strange weather that summer. Shelley wrote that while her husband Percy
– who committed suicide in 1822 – helped her with technical aspects of the writing,
the tale wholly originated with her. 6. The year with no summer coincided with the
end of the Little Ice Age The year without summer is commonly ascribed
to the summer months of 1816, though its effects were felt for three years, part of the final
months of what is known as the Little Ice Age. Crop failures were acute in the first harvest
season of the period, and such continued for at least another two years. Wet and cold weather impeded planting in the
spring as well as harvests in the fall, and the size of the harvests from North America
to China were insufficient to support the populations. Hunger became famine in many areas, including
Europe and China, residents of rural communities migrated to urban areas in search of food
through begging, and population density grew those diseases which strengthen among hungry
populations, including cholera and typhus. Medicine of the time was inadequate to treat
either. The result was a globally felt – at least
in the Northern Hemisphere – calamity, which encompassed starvation, diseases, and popular
unrest for a period of three years. Hundreds of thousands of former soldiers,
veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, roamed Europe seeking the means to feed themselves and their
families. In England sailors who had manned the ships
of His Majesty’s Navy found themselves unemployed as warships were decommissioned, and the absence
of crops reduced the amount of goods available for international trade. Ships rotted at their moorings. By the summer of 1817 organized groups of
former soldiers across Europe were rioting in the belief that government warehouses held
grain being kept from the starving people. In the United States, especially in still
largely agricultural New England, failed crops caused farmers to pull up stakes and head
for the promised lands west of the Ohio River. 5. The Swiss disaster of 1816-1817 was among
the worst of the global catastrophe Over a period of 153 days between April and
September, 1816, Geneva, Switzerland recorded 130 days of rain. The temperature remained too cold for the
snow in the Alps to melt, which prevented the disaster from being far worse. The streets, and more importantly the sewers
and drains, of Geneva were flooded, and Lake Geneva was too swollen with rain to absorb
the runoff. Meanwhile local crops were drowned by the
incessant chill rains, and the harvest of 1816 was a complete failure, leading to the
last recorded famine on the European continent. The lack of fodder led to the demise of hundreds
of thousands of draft animals and cattle and oxen died in the waters in the fields and
alongside the Swiss roads. Hundreds of thousands of Swiss were rendered
homeless, living in the streets and fields unable to feed themselves, as the brutal cold
of an Alpine winter settled upon them. Beginning in early 1817 the death rate in
Switzerland, already well above normal due to starvation and disease, increased by more
than 50%. Oxen, horses, and cattle dead from starvation
and rotting in the fields became sources of food for the desperate populace. Aid from European neighbors was nonexistent,
as the harvests on the continent and in England were similarly sparse. France had but recently survived its revolution
and the ravages of the Napoleonic Era, it was short of manpower, and its newly restored
monarchy was inadequate to the challenges of the disaster which had befallen. As the seemingly unending winter lengthened
it soon became obvious to the people of Europe that those of wealth and privilege were better
able to cope, and that the burden of suffering was being borne by the urban and rural poor. 4. The Year with no summer was well documented
by the educated and wealthy, including Thomas Jefferson In the United States, former president Thomas
Jefferson left behind a record of meteorological events which was so detailed it remains in
use by scholars and scientists studying the global disaster two centuries later. In modern times it is compared to scientific
data acquired through means not understood in Jefferson’s day. For example, the studies of tree rings cut
from trees which were alive during the catastrophe in Vermont indicate that for the period including
1816 there was little or no growth, which corresponds to the notes left by Jefferson
in his Farm Book and other diaries, recording observations he made hundreds of miles to
the south. Among the observations left by Jefferson are
records of rainfalls, which while devastatingly heavy in some areas were scant in others,
including Jefferson’s Virginia. Jefferson wrote to Albert Gallatin towards
the end of the summer of 1816 describing the shortage of rainfall which had been prevalent
during the ending growing season, as well as the unseasonably cold temperatures. Jefferson, who used the records he had prepared
every year since occupying his “Little Mountain” as a basis, informed Gallatin that an average
normal rainfall for the month of August was 9 and 1/6 of an inch. Rainfall for August 1816 had been less than
one inch; “we had only 8/10 of an inch, and still it continues”. He also noted the continuing cold weather
conditions, including the frosts well to the north of Virginia, of which he had learned
through his voluminous correspondence. Yet not Jefferson, nor any other student of
science or the weather of the time, was able to postulate the global disaster had been
due to a natural event, occurring many thousands of miles away. 3. In England, the army was called out to crush
urban uprisings of the starving England, which had been instrumental in the
formation of the coalitions which crushed Napoleon, was particularly hard hit by the
lack of a growing season. Unable to feed itself with the best of harvests,
England found its own crops devastated by the adverse weather and its trading partners
unable to provide food in sufficient quantities to make them affordable for most of its population. England had already endured years of shortages
as the nation threw its might behind the wars with Napoleon, and the people by 1816 had
had enough. As early as in the spring of 1816 food and
grain riots were experienced in the west counties. In the town of Ely armed mobs locked up the
local magistrates and fought the militia which mustered to rescue them. By the following spring mobs in the urban
centers of the midlands were common. Ten thousand armed and angry people rioted
in Manchester that March. The summer of 1817 saw the British Army called
to quell riots and other uprisings in England, Scotland, and Wales, while the transports
to the newly established penal colonies were increased. Local landlords and magistrates often ignored
the pleas of the authorities in London, establishing their own mini-fiefdoms through the promises
of bread and grain. In England, as well as on the European continent,
demands from the wealthier classes led to an increase in more authoritarian governments
and the subsequent loss of civil liberties – such as they were at the time – in response
to the international demand for food. On the other side, the suspicion that governments
were hoarding food and grain at the expense of the poor led to a rise in radical thought,
especially in France and the German principalities. 2. The Great Migration from New England to the
west began in 1816 Most history books attribute the movement
of the American agricultural population to the west following the War of 1812 to the
end of the threat from the Indian tribes formerly supported by their British allies. The end of British influence was no doubt
part of the mass migration, but it takes more than just the potential of new lands to uproot
families from farms held by their ancestors for generations. The catastrophic crop failures which began
in 1816 were a large part of the motivation for the movement to the west, as indicated
by the massive depopulation of the New England states which began during the Year with no
Summer. Particularly hard hit were Vermont and New
Hampshire, as residents packed up and left for the west. For many of them, it was a journey away from
divine punishment, a new exodus to a promised land, a view encouraged from pulpits. A family from Vermont was one of them, which
headed to the west into the lands which are now upstate New York, Indian Territory before
the American victory during the War of 1812. The move coincided with a religious revival
across America which became known as the Second Great Awakening, a return to the fundamentalism
which had protected Americans from the ravages of an angry God, in the view of many. The family which settled for a time in New
York were the Smiths, of Sharon, Vermont. While in their new home one of them, a son
named Joseph, experienced the visions which eventually led to his discovery of the Book
of Mormon. Without a rational explanation for the seemingly
apocalyptic weather, divine explanations sufficed, not only among the Smith family, but with
thousands of families fleeing what they were unable to understand, in search of an explanation
and deliverance. 1. During the global cooling, the Arctic experienced
warming and ice melt As nearly all of the Northern Hemisphere in
the climes occupied by humans felt decreased temperatures and abnormal rain patterns, the
Arctic, including the ice cap, experienced a sharp increase in temperature which led
to a melting of the ice at the top of the world. The receding ice cap allowed explorers, especially
those from the United States and Great Britain, to travel deeper than ever before into the
polar region, using waterways which until then had been unwelcoming sheets of ice. Since the days of Henry Hudson and the earliest
English exploration of North America, the quest for the fabled Northwest Passage had
occupied the minds of explorers and adventurers, and the opportunity presented by changing
weather conditions was too good to pass up. 1818 was the first year in a new series of
English led Polar Expeditions which continued for most of the 19th century. Among them was an expedition led by Englishman
John Ross which included a counter-clockwise navigation around Baffin Bay, which had the
salutary effect of opening the waters for the exploitation of whaling ships. Though the Northwest Passage eluded him, as
it did so many others over history, the boon to the whaling industry was immediate, and
whalers from Great Britain and the United States were soon delivering the fine oil for
illumination to ports around the world. By 1820 the effects of the Year with no Summer
were relegated to history, a part of family lore in which elders described to children
the weather events of the past as far more consequential than those of the current day. Unknown to them, the real effects continued
for decades, and in some ways continue to this day.

46 thoughts on “The Global Impact of the Year Without a Summer

  1. What do ya know, in my area we barely ever have a fall anymore, and summers are crammed with severe, bizarre weather events! When I was a kid, summers (& days) were long, warm, and fall was just as enjoyable, easing us into freezing temps & bitter blizzards. Now, animals are falling from the trees, literally frozen into a coma!
    This past fall we had about a week of falling leaves before a blizzard brought down the other 75% of them, so we had a field of white with brown & red leaves sticking out everywhere. A few years ago we had a sub-freezing ice storm just before Halloween, shutting everything down…
    My conservative, religious, deluded family just talk & act like it's always been exactly like this!

  2. January is almost over and we have yet to have winter weather here in southern Ohio. We had almost an inch of snow so far this year. And other than that we have been having 50+ degree days. And while there is historical precedent for such temperatures, it was quite rare and still is rare. This is basically a year without winter where I live, at least so far.

    The south is going to pay dearly for it, as they will not be getting our snow runoff. The south is going to begin the summer with a water deficit this year.

  3. Dear Mr Whistler could you consider changing the way we convert money through the ages . 23,000 in 1816 is more like 10,000,000 in today’s Buying power or something like that maybe you could do a video on it . A house that cost $1000 in 1816 in a built up area comparison. Industrial wage ? Price of living .

  4. Well, it may have been an economic disaster felt the world over, but the year without a summer did give Mary Shelley time to write one of the most influential and forward-thinking books of all time, so at least there was a silver lining.

  5. A year without summerΒ must not be allowed to happen again.Β  Fortunately we've since discovered fossil fuels.Β  That should improve our outlook.

  6. OMG Y'all global warming started in 1816. I mean global cooling. I mean climate change. What ate we calling it this week?

  7. If only they had cool-season crops to grow…
    I'm not familiar with crops available to farmers in historical times, but some crops thrive in such cold conditions. If I were a farmer back during those times and had access to it, I would have gambled by planting cool-season crops in May if there were still hard frosts going on. Might not have been able to get staples, but something is better than nothing. In that year, that gamble would have probably paid off.

  8. Minor error, at 12:02, you say β€œwe only had one eighth (1/8) of an” while the quote on the video shows eight tenths (8/10).

  9. This was also during the dalton minimum. We have entered another solar minimum in the past 5 or so years. They are marked by odd weather patterns, massive crop losses, disease/epidemics and volcanic/seismic activity rising significantly. This is why you should laugh at climate change people. We are cooling from a solar maximum. Feel free to look up the Maunder Minimum and dalton minimum. Even nasa is saying we are moving into a minimum with the worst yet to come.

  10. When the ice cores from the poles were examined we have had a uncommonly stable climate for the last couple thousand years compared to the norm listen to Randall Carlson many videos about this he has the data to back up his claims

  11. Much the same thing happened after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Tambora's eruption was even stronger, and is thought to be the strongest in recorded history, with an undisputed volcanic explosive index (VEI) of 7. As a comparison, Mount St. Helens' eruption in 1980 was a VEI of 5.

  12. Famine in 1816 in Switzerland, the last recorded famine on the European continent? I don't think so. Try the famines of the 1840s: Ireland, Russia, Poland simultaneously. THEY'RE in the historical literature as being the last. At least in northern Europe.

  13. I wish the nuke wasnt invented wed have had some amazing wars by now also the velocipede was what they called savill when he could still run

  14. 9:45 There were famines in Europe after that, e.g. the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s or the Holodomor in Ukraine under Stalin.

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