Climate change is a source of furious debate. But we can all agree climate abnormalities are not new. The year 1816 has gone down in history as “Year Without a Summer,” and also as the “Poverty Year” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.”
The reason: a severe climate anomaly that caused average global temperatures to drop by 0.7–1.3 °F. Back then, it was the Northern Hemisphere of the planet that suffered the most, resulting in major food shortages as snow fell in the month of June and a killer frost hit in August. It possibly felt like the end of the world.
Although it is not completely understood what led to such extremes, most theories point to the violent volcanic eruptions that occurred in the preceding two years. In 1815, a massive eruption of Mount Tambora took place on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, which at that point was part of the Dutch East Indies (though under the French rule during Napoleon’s occupation of the Dutch). This eruption alone reportedly was ranked at a scale of 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), sending incalculable amounts of volcanic material into the atmosphere. Another violent eruption that likely fueled the Year Without a Summer was the eruption of Mayon in the Philippines in 1814.
Importantly, the Earth had already been going through the centuries-long period of global cooling, today known as the Little Ice Age. The period is conventionally defined as having lasted from the 16th to the 19th century and caused significant agricultural crisis and poverty across Europe.
What is believed to have happened in 1816 was the ongoing cooling of the planet due to the Little Ice Age was exacerbated by the volcanic eruptions.
Historian John D. Post would describe the events of 1816 as “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world.” New England, Atlantic Canada, and large portions of Western Europe seemed to have been hit the hardest. As agriculture suffered and crops failed, there were a number of food riots in the United Kingdom and France. It was even worse in Switzerland, where due to the great famine the government declared a national emergency. Incessant rain worsened the situation, as some of the biggest rivers in Europe flooded.
These terrible events had intricate cultural implications, not all of them bad. The high concentrations of tephra, the particulate material released by volcanic eruptions, ended up in the atmosphere and created astounding sunsets. Some of these have been captured in the paintings of the English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, as it is thought that the phenomena were the inspiration for the yellow tinge prevalent in his artwork. Similar-looking sunset phenomena were observed following the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, and in more recent times, in 1991 when Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines.
What’s perhaps more fascinating is that amongst these times of great strife, humans came up with valuable inventions. As famine meant no food to feed horses, German inventor Karl Drais was motivated to find new means of transport. He eventually came up with the draisine or the velocipede. Justus von Liebig, a chemist who had experienced the great famine as a child in Germany, later dedicated his life to studying plant nutrition and developed the use of mineral fertilizers.
Social changes were also a consequence of the anomaly. Crop failures in North America helped shape the “American Heartland” because a great number of farming families left New England, migrating to places with a more hospitable climate, such as the Midwest. This migration played a part in the founding of the state of Indiana in December 1816, and Illinois, which followed two years after.
Historian L. D. Stillwell also notes that Vermont experienced a rapid decrease in population, of up to 15,000 people, which was virtually equal to reversing seven full years of population growth. Among those who left Vermont was the family of Joseph Smith, who moved from Norwich, Vermont, to Palmyra, New York. This move is considered to have brought about a number of events that later reached their climax with the publication of the Book of Mormon and the official founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Other accounts also tell how these migrations, caused by the famine, led to the formation of groups such as the anti-slavery Abolitionist movement in the Burned-over District of New York.
Changes loomed large in every area of society.
Last but not least, in the world of literature, as the ceaseless rain poured down on Europe, and particularly in Switzerland, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John William Polidori stayed at the Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, for a holiday. To make the most of their time during the wretched weather, the writers decided to compete with one another to see who could come up with the scariest story.
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That’s when Mary Godwin, soon to be Mary Shelley, came up with the story of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Lord Byron wrote A Fragment; Byron’s work inspired Polidori to write The Vampyre, a forerunner of the late-Victorian-age horror novel Dracula.
And so, from the monstrous weather came fantastic monsters who haunt our books and films to this day.