the 1815 Tambora eruption
The Earth had already been in a centuries-long period of global cooling that started in the 14th century. Known today as the Little Ice Age, it had already caused considerable agricultural distress in Europe. The Little Ice Age’s existing cooling was exacerbated by the eruption of Tambora, which occurred near the end of the Little Ice Age.
The year 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer (also the Poverty Year and Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death) because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.
Evidence suggests that the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (the largest eruption in at least 1,300 years after the extreme weather events of 535–536), perhaps exacerbated by the 1814 eruption of Mayon in the Philippines.
The Year Without a Summer was an agricultural disaster
It was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots.
Low temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in Britain and Ireland. Families in Wales traveled long distances begging for food. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland, following the failure of wheat, oat, and potato harvests. In Germany, the crisis was severe; food prices rose sharply. With the cause of the problems unknown, people demonstrated in front of grain markets and bakeries, and later riots, arson, and looting took place in many European cities. It was the worst famine of 19th-century Europe.
The effects were widespread and lasted beyond the winter. In western Switzerland, the summers of 1816 and 1817 were so cold that an ice dam formed below a tongue of the Giétro Glacier high in the Val de Bagnes. Despite engineer Ignaz Venetz‘s efforts to drain the growing lake, the ice dam collapsed catastrophically in June 1818.
In China, the cold weather killed trees, rice crops, and even water buffalo, especially in the north. Floods destroyed many remaining crops. The monsoon season was disrupted, resulting in overwhelming floods in the Yangtze Valley. In India, the delayed summer monsoon caused late torrential rains that aggravated the spread of cholera from a region near the Ganges in Bengal to as far as Moscow. In Japan, still exercising caution after the cold weather related Great Tenmei famine of 1782–1788, the cold damaged crops, but no crop failures were reported, and there were adverse effects on population.
As a result of the series of volcanic eruptions, crops in the aforementioned areas had been poor for several years; the final blow came in 1815 with the eruption of Tambora. Europe, still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in the United Kingdom and France, and grain warehouses were looted. The violence was worst in landlocked Switzerland, where famine caused the government to declare a national emergency. Huge storms and abnormal rainfall with flooding of Europe’s major rivers (including the Rhine) are attributed to the event, as is the August frost. A major typhus epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819, precipitated by the famine caused by the Year Without a Summer. An estimated 100,000 Irish perished during this period. A BBC documentary, using figures compiled in Switzerland, estimated that the fatality rates in 1816 were twice that of average years, giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths.
New England also experienced major consequences from the eruption of Tambora. The corn crop in New England failed. Corn was reported to have ripened so poorly that no more than a quarter of it was usable for food. The crop failures in New England, Canada, and parts of Europe also caused the price of wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk, and flour to rise sharply.
The eruption of Tambora caused Hungary to experience brown snow. Italy’s northern and north-central region experienced something similar, with red snow falling throughout the year. The cause of this is believed to have been volcanic ash in the atmosphere.
In China, unusually low temperatures in summer and fall devastated rice production in Yunnan, resulting in widespread famine. Fort Shuangcheng, now in Heilongjiang, reported fields disrupted by frost and conscripts deserting as a result. Summer snowfall or otherwise mixed precipitation was reported in various locations in Jiangxi and Anhui, located at around 30°N. In Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, snow was reported in Hsinchu and Miaoli, and frost was reported in Changhua.
The second-coldest year in the Northern Hemisphere since around 1400 was 1816, and the 1810s are the coldest decade on record. That was the consequence of Tambora’s 1815 eruption… This climate anomaly has been blamed for the severity of typhus epidemics in southeast Europe and along the eastern Mediterranean Sea between 1816 and 1819. The climate changes disrupted the Indian monsoons, caused three failed harvests and famine, and contributed to the spread of a new strain of cholera that originated in Bengal in 1816. Many livestock died in New England during the winter of 1816–1817. Cool temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in Britain and Ireland. Families in Wales travelled long distances as refugees, begging for food. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland, following the failure of wheat, oat, and potato harvests. The crisis was severe in Germany, where food prices rose sharply, and demonstrations in front of grain markets and bakeries, followed by riots, arson, and looting, took place in many European cities. It was the worst famine of the 19th century.
High levels of tephra in the atmosphere led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, a feature celebrated in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner. This may have given rise to the yellow tinge predominant in his paintings such as Chichester Canal circa 1828. Similar phenomena were observed after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and on the West Coast of the United States following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.
The lack of oats to feed horses may have inspired the German inventor Karl Drais (inventor in the Biedermeier period, Laufmaschine-“running machine”) to research new ways of horseless transportation, which led to the invention of the draisine or velocipede. This was the ancestor of the modern bicycle and a step toward mechanized personal transport.
The crop failures of the “Year without a Summer” may have helped shape the settling of the “American Heartland“, as many thousands of people (particularly farm families who were wiped out by the event) left New England for western New York and the Northwest Territory in search of a more hospitable climate, richer soil, and better growing conditions. Indiana became a state in December 1816 and Illinois two years later. British historian Lawrence Goldman has suggested that this migration into the Burned-over district of New York was responsible for the centering of the anti-slavery movement in that region.
Vermont alone experienced a decrease in population of between 10,000 and 15,000, erasing seven previous years of population growth.
In June 1816, “incessant rainfall” during that “wet, ungenial summer” forced Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John William Polidori, and their friends to stay indoors at Villa Diodati overlooking Lake Geneva for much of their Swiss holiday. They decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story, leading Shelley to write Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Lord Byron to write “A Fragment“, which Polidori later used as inspiration for The Vampyre — a precursor to Dracula. In addition, Lord Byron was inspired to write the poem “Darkness“, by a single day when “the fowls all went to roost at noon and candles had to be lit as at midnight”.
Between April and May 1816, “Bread or Blood” riots erupted across East Anglia as the price of bread surpassed the wages of agricultural and industrial laborers. While food riots had a long history in Britain, industrialization, enclosure, and globalization increasingly safeguarded the nation’s food supply by the early nineteenth century.
April 24 – The Second Serbian Uprising against Ottoman rule takes place in Takovo, Ottoman Serbia. By the end of the year Serbia is acknowledged as a semi-independent state; the ideals of the First Serbian Uprising have thus been temporarily achieved.