Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death: The Year Without Summer

By Karen Harris

(Photo by BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

Think our weather is wacky sometimes? It is nothing compared to 1816, also known as the Year Without a Summer in the United States. That year, frost was reported to have occurred in every month of the year. In July and August, rivers and lakes in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire covered with ice. Eighteen inches of snow fell in New England on June 7 and 8. Birds froze to death and dropped from the sky. In some areas, the ground was still too frozen on the Fourth of July for farmers to plant their crops. Crops that could be planted failed…killed in the repeated frosts. People ran out of firewood to heat their homes and there were wide-spread food shortages. Some people in Boston resorted to eating pigeons and raccoons to keep themselves alive. People referred to the Year Without Summer as “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” Most certainly, these early Americans must have thought the planet was being plunged into another ice age. But the real reason for the Year Without Summer was a huge volcanic eruption on the other side of the world. 

The Tambora Eruption Was The Largest One In Human History

On April 10, 1815, the Tambora volcano, on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia, violently erupted. This eruption dwarfed all other volcanic eruptions before and after. It was more powerful than the eruptions of Krakatoa, Vesuvius, Mount St. Helens, and Mauna Loa. When Tambora blew its top, it sent out enough ash, stone, and pumice to cover a 200 miles square area at a depth of nearly twelve feet. The estimated death toll for the initial eruption is about 12,000 people, but in all, about 71,000 deaths have been attributed to the eruption. 

The Tambora Eruption Caused a Huge Cloud of Sulfuric Gas

Then the volcano exploded, it sent a tremendous amount of ash, dust, and gasses into the air. In fact, the eruption was so strong that it sent sulfur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere, more than ten miles above the ground. In the stratosphere, the sulfur dioxide reacted with the water vapors and produced a cloud of sulfate aerosols. The aerosols are so high up…well above the altitude of rain…that they remained suspended there. They were not washed down by rain. The aerosol particles reflect the sunlight away from the Earth’s surface and cause a global cooling effect. Volcanologists and climatologists theorize that this is what happened after the 1815 eruption of Tambora. By the following year, the aerosol cloud had spread and temperatures in North American, as well as Europe and the rest of the world, dipped drastically. 

A “Dry Fog” Persisted

One of the anomalies created by the eruption and the ensuing volcanic winter was the lingering presence of a “dry fog”. The people of the eastern United States noted that the fog was unlike regular fogs that are formed by water vapors and dissipate in the sunlight. Even wind and rain wouldn’t clear up the fog. This fog was persistent and colored the air a yellowish-red. It created a filter and allowed observers to clearly see sunspots without a telescope. Today, scientists know that this was an example of a stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil. 

Temperatures Plummeted During the Year Without Summer

Today’s climatologists believe that the Tambora eruption and resulting sulfur cloud prevented the sun’s rays from fully penetrating to Earth. This caused world-wide temperatures to drop. On average, the year was about 3-degrees Fahrenheit cooler than average, but this is a bit deceiving. This number is a worldwide average. In some areas, such as Europe and North American, the spring and summer temperatures routinely dipped below freezing. 

The Year Without Summer Led to Food Shortages

In an era where almost everybody grew their own food instead of relying on the frozen food section of the local supermarket, a worldwide cooling meant that crops failed. And that is just what happened. There are numerous accounts of farm fields completely dying due to frosts and freezes that occurred all throughout the summer. Often times, the ground was too frozen to plant the seeds. Fruit trees failed to produce fruit because the blossoms were frozen off. Even Thomas Jefferson, who had recently stepped down from being President, reported that all the crops grown at Monticello died. Plant life wasn’t the only thing affected. Livestock was, too. Diary entries from the time tell of cattle, sheep, and goats freezing to death in their stalls or dying of exposure in the pastures. Chickens, if they survived the volcanic winter, did not produce eggs. Hunting was scarce. Fearing starvation, many people fled their farms, seeking better weather elsewhere. The ones who remained spent a lot of time in church, praying for an end to the cold and starvation. 

Mary Shelley

The Year Without a Summer Impacted Literature

In all, the Year Without a Summer was a terrible time for mankind, but there was at least one good thing to come out of it…Frankenstein! Author Mary Shelley, her poet husband, Percy Shelley, and their friend, Lord Byron, were vacationing in Geneva in 1816, but the extreme cold and rain kept them indoors. To pass the time, Mary Shelley suggested that the three each write a gothic story to share with the others. The gloom and doom of the weather inspired her to pen a scary tale. What Mary Shelley wrote was her most famous work, Frankenstein’s Monster. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.