1816: The Year Without Summer

Miserable. Gloomy. Freezing cold. In Canada, winter can be all these things. But in 1816, that’s how the summer unfolded — and it would take nearly seventy years before we would understand why.

Written by Peter McGuigan

April 10, 2016

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Rear Admiral Edward Griffiths must have been amazed. His flagship, Akbar, left the tropical warmth of Bermuda about June 1, 1816, to sail to Halifax, the major British naval station in North America. As he left the Gulf Stream, a cold rain fell and a thick fog appeared, which was not that unusual. But the next day, Friday, June 7, as Akbar approached Nova Scotia, the temperature fell sharply — and were those snow flurries in the biting wind? Apparently so. Saturday, as the cold ship struggled into Halifax, there was “no improvement in the weather.” At least she received the salute from George’s Island.

The same day. Lady Katherine, the wife of Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor. Sir John Sherbrooke, witnessed Akbar‘s arrival from Government House. She reported in her June 7 diary entry that as she walked in the garden with a friend, “It was almost as cold as winter.” Also, there had been “a snow.” The weather June 8 was no better, but at least there did not seem to be any more of the white stuff. On Sunday, when the Sherbrookes attended St. Paul’s Anglican Church, the weather was “rather more favourable,” and by the end of June summer had arrived.

The Acadian Recorder of June 8 commented on this exceptional weather: “Nothing can be more unpromising than our prospects; perhaps there never was a season so backward, such a succession of unfavourable weather, so scanty a shew of vegetation on the beginning of June.” There was also intelligence from the United States telling of “deplorable accounts of suffering from want of rain-in many parts the Wheat has perished and the ground has been again ploughed and sown with other seeds.”_ The June 10 edition of the Montreal Gazette stated that “the season has been retarded to a later period than remembered by the oldest inhabitant.” It continued, “We had a little snow on Saturday, yesterday was more mild and the sun had the influence in the beginning of May, but it was very cold during the night. Serious apprehensions are to be formed of our ensuing crop.”

In the meantime, Sir John Sherbrooke had been promoted to governor-in-chief of British North America. The Sherbrookes left Halifax on June 28 aboard HMS Niger for Quebec City. Their voyage started with some difficulty due to little wind, but by July 2 they were sailing past Torbay in eastern Nova Scotia. Lady Sherbrooke reported that the morning was “very cold.” However, the next day as they passed northwestern Prince Edward Island, there was a fine sailing breeze.

Then, on July 6, the weather began to deteriorate. That day featured “a very hard rain,” followed by “a very windy evening.” The next day, as the ship crept past Ile du Bic in the lower Saint Lawrence River, “the wind became extremely cold and small flakes of snow were mixed with the rain.” The situation was similar the next day, so Lady Sherbrooke spent the day in her cabin. Finally, on July 12, when the party reached Quebec City, the weather started to improve. She reported their second day “very hot.”

Lady Sherbrooke had experienced the first two cold waves. The first had deposited snow as far south as the northern border of Massachusetts and the second caused a near frost as far south as Virginia. Drought also affected the country at least as far west as the Selkirk settlement in the Red River Valley, where the inhabitants were threatened with starvation. Similar cold gripped Europe, reducing the grape crop and severely damaging the wheat.

Lady Sherbrooke discontinued her diary from August 24 to September 19 when she was touring Upper Canada with her husband. In the meantime, there were two more cold waves, August 21 and August 30. One of her last entries noted that August 21 was “a very cold morning,” but did not mention snow. However, neither wave seems to have affected southern Quebec or Nova Scotia much, although in New England they were severe for the corn.

These better local conditions are borne out by the Acadian Recorder of September 14, which reported, “Oats of this year’s growth made their appearance in our market this morning. They were raised by Mr. Dawson on a farm near the North-West Arm; and are of excellent quality.”

However, further north the damage had been done. On July 15, 1816, the Montreal Gazette printed the proclamation of Major-General John Wilson, acting administrator of Lower Canada. It forbade “exportation of Wheat, Flour, Biscuit, Beans, Peas, Barley, and Grain until the 1oth day of September next ensuing.” In November, Prince Edward Island did the same, prohibiting “the exportation of grain and all sorts of provisions for a space of three months.” Nova Scotia and New Brunswick followed suit, and six hundred would-be immigrants were turned away from St. John’s, Newfoundland, due to lack of food in the town.

All summer the editor of the Gazette worried about the food shortage in Quebec. On July 22, he stated that the recently announced importation of grain, flour, etc., from the United States would “together with the approaching harvest soon relieve the country from the scarcity of bread.” Then, on November 4, after exaggerating the prospects of the European harvest, he wrote, “Such abundance abroad will leave most of the grain in our states, except what may find its way to Canada.” He doesn’t seem to have been aware of the shortage in Connecticut announced in the August 26 Gazette.

The situation continued to deteriorate. On November 11, the Gazette reported distress in the interior of Quebec and, three weeks later, the crop failure in the “Old Country.” In Quebec, “several parishes on the interior are so far in want as to create the most serious alarms. In need of almost immediate assistance, we find a part of the Bay St. Paul, Les Éboulements, St. André, Caconab and Rimouskie [sic].” Help seems to have arrived by 1817 when the chief problem appeared to be high prices for grains.

Later the search for causes began. In a 1963 article, the Halifax Chronicle Herald referred to talk during the episode of the sun cooling, and fear of no more summer, and God punishing people for deserting their farms for lucrative seaport jobs during the War of 1812.

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More realistic was the report of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. On April 5, 1815, with Napoleon loose again in a very tense Europe, Raffles was in Batavia (Jakarta), Dutch East Indies. He had just driven out the Corsican’s appointee when volcanic ash began to fall. Further east the sky became so dark as to be a realization of Milton’s “darkness visible.” The authorities sent a ship to investigate and learned that the great volcano Tambora was in full and terrifying eruption. Twelve thousand died. Raffles reported to the Natural History Society in Batavia that September, but the eruption apparently was seen as an isolated, although sensational, incident.

Another volcanic explosion in the Dutch East Indies sixty-seven years later became much better known. In 1883 Krakatoa blew up, its dust causing spectacular sunsets around the world. It was the first such case closely studied, and comparisons began to be made to Tambora. Scientists determined that the explosion of Tambora was ten times Krakatoa’s — in fact, the most powerful volcanic eruption in ten thousand years.

If Krakatoa caused a 15 to 20 percent drop in sunlight, could Tambora not have caused a much greater cooling? Apparently so. Then, in 1920, W.J. Humphries of the U.S. Weather Bureau published Physics of the Air. He looked at both sunspot and temperature records and concluded that “It appears that the dust in our atmosphere, and not the condition of the sun, is an important, if not the controlling factor in determining the great change in insolation at the surface of the Earth.”

Since then much more data have become available, including that from Mount Agung’s eruption in 1963. Located near Tambora, this burst was followed by a drop of about 0.2°c in global temperatures, with recovery taking several years. In northern regions the decrease was 0.6°c. With Tambora estimated to have created four times as much dust, the northern regions should have dropped about 2.4°c. for up to two years, which is close to nineteenth-century records kept at New Haven, Connecticut and Geneva, Switzerland. Although there are a few other explanations, such as a random combination of meteorological events, the tremendous explosion of Tambora is the most likely source of a year of misery, fear, and near-starvation in the Northern Hemisphere. Given that the 1780-1820 period was already cool, a reduction in sunlight could have been enough to cause the year without a summer.

Meanwhile, on the Prairies

For the beleaguered Red River colonists, who were having trouble becoming self-sufficient in a landscape harsh and alien to them, the summer of 1816 turned into the nadir of their New World experience. On June 19, simmering tensions between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company exploded in a battle at Seven Oaks, which saw twenty-one men die and shattered the confidence of the Scottish settlers, who were caught in the hatred between the rival fur-trade companies and were targets of Métis animosity. Now the weather would not cooperate. Since their arrival near the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in 1812, they had had trouble making the most of the region’s fertility. The 1812 harvest, for instance, was so poor that they were forced to journey 100 kilometres south to the better-supplied post at Pembina under the friendly guidance of Peguis, chief of the Ojibway. In 1813, they again wintered in Pembina.

In 1816, Peguis came to their rescue once more. This time he took the struggling settlers to his village at Netley Creek, sixty kilometres north of present-day Winnipeg. They were not to know what global conditions were making their sojourn so fraught, but in 1819 HBC trader and Red River surveyor Peter Fidler observed:

Within these last 3 years the climate seems to be greatly changed the summers being so backward with very little rain & even snow in Winter much less than usual and the ground parched tip that all kinds of grass is very thin & short & most all the small creeks that flowed with plentiful streams all summer have entirely dried up after the snow melted away in the spring. ... Wheat, Barley, & potatoes have been cultivated here a few years back to a considerable extent last summer a considerable quantity was sown & planted of the kinds above mentioned but owing to the very dryness of the season not even a single stalk was reaped or potatoes taken up and here before when showery summers the wheat would produce above 40 Barley 45 and the potatoes 50 fold. Even all the smaller Kinds of vegetables failed from the same cause but the first week in Augt last clouds of Grasshoppers came & destroyed what little barley especially had escaped the drought.

The world the Selkirk settlers knew was a cooler one than our own. They were living in the Little Ice Age, the interval between the 1450 and 1850 when global temperatures were between 1.0 and 2.0°c cooler than they are now. Within that, the settlers were living in what some climatologists say was a cooling trend between 1809 and 1820. And in the middle of that came the 1815 eruption of Tambora. For settlers living on the edge of existence on the central North American plains, its effects were very nearly the last straw.

Peter McGuigan is a Halifax writer. This article originally appeared in the June/July 2003 issue of The Beaver.

et cetera

Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816, The Year Without a Summer by Henry Stommel and Elizabeth Stommel. Seven Seas Press, Newport, Rhode Island, 1983.

A web history of the year without summer in eastern Canada and the U.S. may be found on The Weather Doctor website.

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