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January in June? 1816, the Year without a Summer

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on June 6, 2012 in Archaeology, Paleoecology |
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(This is the eighth in a series of posts about the environmental context of human ecosystems and archaeological sites in eastern North America)

On this morning’s weather report, WNYT Channel 13 in Albany recalled a Ballston Spa, New York newspaper story from 1816:  June 6, 1816 dawned cold and snowy.  According to the Channel 13 broadcast, in the “Year without a Summer” it was reported in Ballston Spa that 5 inches of snow fell in June, and 12 inches during June through August.  In New York State and New England, growing seasons of 160 days were reduced to 70 (Winchester 2003).  Famine and emigration were triggered.  In North America, snow and frost recurred during late spring and summer from Canada to the mid-Atlantic. Europe was hit just as hard with weather-related food and economic crises.

Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc. frequently performs archaeological surveys at sites of early 19th century homes in towns such as Ballston and Malta where people tried to live through the severe, wintery conditions of this unusual summer.  We are mindful of the challenges they faced as we document their history.  We are also aware that the “Year without a Summer” indicates an extreme that may have been approximated in more remote, less documented periods of the past.  It may help to estimate the limits of extreme cold climates after the Ice Age (cf. Snow 1980:158).

The “Year without a Summer” was caused by the volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora in Indonesia during 1815.  The Tambora eruption and its effects are referred to by Simon Winchester (2003) while putting the Krakatoa eruption of 1883 in context.  Krakatoa is better documented in terms of eye-witness accounts and the use of trans-oceanic telegraphic communication (which wasn’t around in 1815), but the Tambora eruption is reckoned as the greater of the two.  Greater, that is, in terms of the amount of material ejected and the height it attained in the atmosphere.  The winter effect during the summer of 1816 was caused by this material circulating and blocking sunlight high in the sky, probably higher than the estimated 22 miles reached by volcanic material from Krakatoa.  Winchester (2003:293) notes that periods of cooling are generally associated with volcanic eruptions.  However, the 1815-1816 correlation appears to represent a climate extreme like no other since the so-called AD 536 event, also believed to have been triggered by a volcano (Keys 1999). Winchester reminds us that Lord Byron probably referred to the unusual, 1816 summer when he wrote:

Morn came and went-
and came,
and brought no new day.

References cited:
Keys, David
1999 Catastrophe.  Ballantine Books, New York.

Snow, Dean R.
1980 The Archaeology of New England. Academic Press, New York.

Winchester, Simon
2003  Krakatoa. HarperCollins, New York.

Also noted:
Stommel, Henry and Elizabeth Stommel
1979 The Year without a Summer.  Scientific  American 240 (June):176-186.

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