The year without a summer

The volcanic gases and particulates in the atmosphere led to spectacular sunsets, such as those later painted by Turner.

In 1816, after an unusually severe winter, the United Kingdom experienced ‘a summer more unseasonable than any former one in my remembrance’ (from correspondence between Susan Farington and Antony Hamond). Nurseryman Samuel Curtis called it ‘the most unpropitious season ever remembered’, and diariest Pegge Burnell called August ‘a most unseasonable month’, describing it elsewhere as ‘dismal, wet, and cold’.

Various studies in the United States, England, and Europe have concluded that this was more than regular climate fluctuation, although winters in the last decade of the eighteenth and early part of the century had been exceptionally cold. Sunspot numbers were down; volcanic activity was up. And then, in 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in the largest volcanic eruption in, perhaps, thousands of years. For hundreds of miles, the sea was covered in pumice. Ash darkened the sky so that candles were needed throughout the day, and even with candles, people could see only a few metres. Tens, and perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people died. And high in the atmosphere, tonnes of sulfur dioxide thrown out of the volcano turned in sulfuric acid, making an aerosol that would block incoming solar radiation for years to come.

It took time for the effects to reach the other side of the world, but the record shows that the spring, summer, and autumn of 1816 were exceptionally wet and cold, with frequent storms and floods. Harvest failed in the United States, Britain, and across Europe and Asia, leading to famine on a wide scale and starvation among the poor. In China, peasants turned to growing opium in order to make money, and the boom in production led in time to the Opium Wars and the opium trade that still exists today.

In England, people were already suffering severe hardship and food shortages because of the long years of war, harsh economic policies that favoured the wealthy, and the vast mass of unemployed swollen by more than 400,000 men from dismissed from the army and navy after the war. Adding a volcanically enhanced winter to the mix was devastating.

…despite the long run of generally cold wet conditions experienced in the 1810s, extreme weather recorded in the spring, summer and autumn months of 1816 may have been ‘truly exceptional’ and ‘of a degree for which it is reasonable to invoke an external forcing mechanism’ (Sadler and Grattan 1999, 187).

Our sources also add further evidence in support of 1816 being a difficult year for many people across the UK. In Upper Annandale (Dumfries and Galloway), the correspondent to the Farmer’s Magazine (17, 483) described a year ‘having neither spring, nor summer, nor harvest’ and our sources too emphasise the need to recognise a sequence of unusual weather, most of it unfavourable for agriculture, within 1816. The weather hampered agricultural (and other outdoor) work, and harvests of grass, grain and vegetables were of poor quality and quantity. There was a shortage of fodder and livestock was lost in floods or heavy snowfall in some places. Storms and floods uprooted trees, and damaged homes and other buildings. Normal routines were disrupted and travel difficult. An impact on physical and emotional wellbeing is also inferred. [Veale, Endfield. Situating 1816, the ‘year without a summer’, in the UK.]

(I am researching conditions in summer 1816, because my next book, House of Thorns, take place at that time.)