The Year Without a Summer: 1816

By , April 17, 2010 1:19 am

1815 represented a pretty good year for the United Kingdom. The “damn close run thing” at Waterloo had seen, finally, Napolean’s defeat. Peace had come, and the UK was on the winning side of it. Life looked good, the future looked bright.

But the next year, disaster came, and 1816 came to be known as “The Year Without a Summer”.

There were serious consequences all over the world, particularly for Northern Europe and North America. This post looks at the disaster and the consequences in this country.

Why no summer?

Map showing variation from normal temperatures in Europe in the "Year Without a Summer", 1816

Map showing variation from normal temperatures in Europe in the "Year Without a Summer", 1816

In April 1815, however, there had been a massive explosion. Mount Tambora volcano, in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), has been erupting since 1812, went bang.

38 cubic miles of pyroclastic material was ejected into the atmosphere. The ash column rose to about 140,000 feet. It was probably the largest ash explosion since the last Ice Age.

This followed four other serious volcanic events, which had taken place over the previous 4 years, so there was already a fair amount of volcanic dust and ash in the atmosphere.

In addition, solar activity had hit a periodic low point. So there was a confluence of damaging events.

The ash and dust in the atmosphere took a while to circulate, therefore there was a “summer” in 1815 (although it had been cold and wet for a few years, because of the other eruptions and the solar minima).

The vast quantities of volcanic debris in the atmosphere restricted the amount of sunlight which reached the earth’s surface, and there was a huge quantity of sulphur floating around the earth.

There is an article here, from History Magazine, about the effects of various volcanic eruptions.

The weather in England in the summer of 1816

Mount Tambora Volcano in 2006

Mount Tambora Volcano in 2006

It was cold, wet, and miserable. It snowed near London at Easter, in May and at the end of July, for example – a long way from typical weather in the south of England.It rained most days from May to September – 142 out of 153 days in the Lake District.  There were snow drifts in the Lake District in July, and ice on London ponds in September.

World-wide temperatures dropped significantly, and it was one of the coldest summers in English records (from the 16th century onwards).

Agriculture and crop failures

Crops were damaged by cold rainfall, and didn’t grow properly because of a lack of sun. Many crops rotted in the fields before they could be harvested, and more rotted after harvesting, because it was so damp.

In western England, Wales and Ireland, there were near-total crop failures in some areas.  Farm labourers found themselves out of work in large numbers, and added to the soldiers who had been demobbed after the end of the Napleonic Wars.

Social consequences of the year without a summer

Chichester Canal by J M W Turner

Chichester Canal by J M W Turner

All hell broke loose, not surprisingly.  Unemployment rose sharply, and famine threatened. The price of basic food stuffs soared, and many people went very hungry. Disease and infection rose, because of malnutrition and the wet conditions.

Riots and disturbances occurred all over the country. In one riot, over 100 food shops were broken into and ransacked, and the Luddite movement, which had been suppressed by 1813, re-gained power – in one attack on a factory in Loughbrough, over £6,000 worth of machinery was broken.

Mary Shelley, on holiday with friends in Switzerland, took advantage of the foul weather to write Frankenstein.  And the wonderful sunsets inspired artists, including Turner.

14 Responses to “The Year Without a Summer: 1816”

  1. Fascinating. I didn’t know about that volcanic tragedy at all. I hope the most recent one in Iceland doesn’t cause as much trouble.

    • Blog author says:

      “not getting a ‘plane” is OK in comparison, I think (-:

      • Robb says:

        You do realize that the last time the volcano erupted in Iceland, it lasted over a year, and it triggered another eruption in a nearby volcano.

        Besides, William just said, I hope it doesn’t cause as much trouble. He was in no way trying to compare not getting a plane to what happened in England. He was saying he hopes it doesn’t get worse.

  2. jo oliver says:

    Never heard of this little piece of history. Very interesting and timely….considering Icelands’ trouble.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aaron D. Pendell. Aaron D. Pendell said: History and traditions of England ~ The Year Without a Summer: 1816 ~ [...]

  4. Joanna says:

    If the flutter of butterfly wings in the Amazon rain forest can influence weather around the globe, a volcano erupting won’t affect only the immediate area around it. However, I’d think the events of 1815 and 1816 were a far worse catastrophe to the people of England than the recent eruption in Iceland disrupting air traffic. After all, people managed to get around Europe before planes were invented and became the preferred method of long-distance travel. We can only hope, though, that the ash floating around now won’t cause the same climate change as in 1816. As it is, I can’t quite get my head around no planes landing or taking off at Heathrow (or any other European airport).

    • Blog author says:

      it’s very odd indeed – Heathrow in particular is one of the busiest airports in the world, and not seeing a single plane overhead in London is very strange!

  5. [...] The Year Without a Summer: 1816 by admin under Uncategorized 1815 was agood year for the UK. The 201cdamn close run thing201d at Waterloo had seen, finally, Napolean2019s defeat. But the next year, disaster came, and 1816 came to be known as 201cThe Year Without a Summer201d. There were serious consequences all over the world, particularly for Northern Europe and North America. This post looks at the disaster in the UK. … Read ahead [...]

  6. Tam says:

    I was very near the chaos of the Mt. St. Helens eruption,and lived with ash for several months. Even years later you can still find ash in the area. This is very interesting.

    • Blog author says:

      We’re having fun and games in the UK at the moment, with the ash cloud from Iceland. No planes overhead in London, which is very strange indeed!

  7. Eric G says:

    The important thing to remember is that the event described above happened in April 1815. The year without summer was 1816. So while we laugh and make jokes about no planes in England and parts of Europe, it is possible that the more sinister implications of this most recent event have yet to be felt.
    I know what people are going to say, that there were other volcanoes and a solar events that caused the 1816 chill. My contention is that the current atmospheric conditions due to carbon emissions and other particulate matter in the atmosphere may cause a similar event. The misnomer “global warmer” has lulled people into believing that the earth will only warm. It is equally as likely that the world will cool considerably. That is why “Climate Change” is probable a better term for our carbon problem. Please keep in mind that I am no scientist, but simply an avid reader of scientific news. Cheers!

  8. Thos Weatherby says:

    Eric G, There is no Carbon problem. There is no global warming. Climate change happens daily. It’s the wrong term, too broad. Yes we are cooling. Doesn’t have anything to do with carbon. It’s not the CO2 that causes change rather than the change causes CO2. The CO2 follows the change. It doesn’t cause the change.

  9. I think the summer of 1816 must have been very trying and baffling to those who felt the bitter cold. I have found that although the volcano eruption was well reported in the newspapers, people did not connect that event to the huge climated changes. I have just written briefly about this topic as it affected Americans.

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