‘1816’ tackles how people reacted to the weather change in the 1800s and how their lives changed

Richard Harris

By A Contributor

This is a fascinating look at how weather drastically changed the world almost two centuries ago, although the people at the time did not realize the cause.  We now know that the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815 was the cause of freakish weather worldwide.

The book was written by the father-son duo of historian William Klingaman and meteorologist Nicholas Klingaman. It is often quite apparent who is doing the writing, depending whether historical or scientific aspects are being discussed.  This is a carefully documented volume, with the historian’s attention to original source detail on the one hand and the scientist’s detailed description of weather phenomenon on the other.

It all began with massive eruption from Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa April 5, 1815. The blast was heard 800 miles away and ash streamed 18-miles into the sky. Five days later it erupted again even more violently.  Tambora remains the largest known volcanic eruption in the last 2,000 years; 10 times more explosive than the more famous Krakatoa, in 1883; the more recent Pinatubo, in 1991; 100 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens, in 1980, or Vesuvius’ eruption that buried Pompeii in 79 AD. Tambora spewed 100 cubic kilometers of molten rock in the form of ash and pumice and 55 million tons of sulfur dioxide gas into the stratosphere, where it combined with readily available hydrogen to make 100 million tons of sulfuric acid. By the next spring this invisible veil of ash and acid had traveled around the world.

Exactly how strange was the weather in 1816?

The volcanic cloud reduced northern hemisphere temperatures by three degrees Fahrenheit in 1816, making it the second coldest year since 1401. Only 1601, following another massive volcanic eruption, this time in Peru, was colder. As early as fall 1815, London experienced spectacular fiery sunsets. Although the winter of 1815 to 1816 was warmer than average, especially in New England, in April several inches of snow fell in Quebec, upstate New York and Ohio, as well as Britain and France.

The snow continued into May, with hard freezes in New England and New York and frost as far south as Virginia and Tennessee. By late May virtually all of the spring crops in the Northeast had been killed.

By June 8 Quebec and Montreal were again covered in several inches of snow. Snow and ice then moved into New England, New York and as far south as Pittsburgh, Pa.

Although temperatures rebounded in late June, early July brought frosts as far south as Virginia, largely finishing off the few remaining crops that had survived or postdated the earlier storms.

After these storms, temperatures moderated but the rain ceased, initiating a protracted period of drought. Many New Englanders pulled up stakes and emigrated to what was then the Western frontier, now the Midwest.

Western Europe, just starting to recover from years of the destructive Napoleonic Wars, also experienced cold rains and occasional snow in spring and summer 1816. However, there the rains continued, and fields across the continent were soon flooded from, Ireland to Austria.  Massive famine, unrest, and a terrible typhus epidemic ensued.  The weather may have even hastened the deaths of author Jane Austen and King George III.

Few attributed the strange weather to Tambora’s eruption, although its existence was known in the West. 

An occasional person over the years had suggested that volcanic eruptions could affect weather, among them Benjamin Franklin, who had years earlier postulated that the 1783 eruption of the Icelandic Laki volcano had been the cause of strange weather in Europe in 1783 to 1784.

There was no shortage of other explanations, however, including unsubstantiated theories about heightened sunspot activity in the preceding years or some connection with the massive 1811 New Madrid earthquake in southeast Missouri.

Many attributed the weather to God’s wrath and called for repentance before the coming apocalypse.

One very interesting aspect of the book considers how other historical events may have been related to Tambora. For example, British landscape painter Joseph W.M. Turner traveled through northern England in summer 1816 and painted several scenes of unusually cold, gloomy and wet weather.

Mary Godwin Shelly spent the same summer in Switzerland but was mostly kept inside due to the abysmal weather. She started writing a story which later became her masterpiece “Frankenstein.” Not too far away Lord Byron wrote some of his gloomiest poetry.

Although the authors do not dwell on modern or future parallels, it is hard not to think of the current climate change debate.

Tambora caused massive worldwide disruption at a time then the U.S. had only 8.5 million residents (85-percent under age 40 and 93-percent in rural locations.) What would happen today to an older, mostly urban nation of over 300 million?

Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at K-State and a Manhattan resident.









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