When the summer of 1816 ended that September, people were shaking their heads — and shivering in their great coats — wondering what could possibly have happened to cause such unseasonable weather for the past six months.
In the early years of the 19th century, news did not spread around the world instantaneously like it does now. Events that occurred in remote areas of the world would not be known about for months or even years afterward. That is what happened in April of 1815, when a volcano erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Although not as well-known as its neighbor, Mt. Krakatoa (which erupted in 1883), the eruption of Mt. Tambora was actually more violent and killed more people both immediately, and in the almost two-year long upheaval it caused in weather patterns around the world.
We may not have known anything about the Tambora eruption if it had not been for Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British Lieutenant Governor of Java, who wrote an account of the events of April 1815 and later published his report in Britain in 1816.
Despite what today might seem to be an obvious correlation between the volcanic eruption and the erratic weather, at that time no connection was made. Raffles’ report concentrated on the impact the eruption had on Sumbawa and the surrounding islands. He estimated that about 12,000 natives had perished from the immediate effects of the eruption and another 70,000 succumbed to disease and starvation after their crops and fresh water supplies were destroyed by falling ash and debris.
The ash cloud created by Tambora began spreading around the globe within days. The force of the eruption was so intense that in addition to ash, an estimated 55 million tons of sulfur-dioxide gas was propelled into the stratosphere. This gas combined with hydroxide gas to form sulfuric acid and create what is called an aerosol cloud. That cloud got caught in the jet stream and began blowing in an east-to-west direction. Because of the flow of the jet stream and the density of the cloud, it remained in the stratosphere for nearly two years, affecting weather patterns around the globe, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere.
It wasn’t until 1980, when scientists were able to study the effects of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, that a direct link was made between volcanic activity and changes in weather patterns.
Although most of the information we have today about that unusual summer comes from more populated areas of New England and Northern Europe, there were a few reports that came out of this area from people who were visiting or living here at the time.
On May 21, a young man from Cayuga County, David Thomas, began walking to the Indiana territory. Approaching Buffalo on May 25, he wrote it was so cold “we shivered in winter dress with great coats and gloves.” He recorded there was still ice on Lake Erie in late May. As Thomas traveled through Chautauqua County, he found it to be “wrapt in the drapery of winter.”
When Robert Nichols arrived in Niagara Falls in June of 1816, it was so cold that he had to put on his great coat. He reported that icicles 18 inches long hung from the eves of the Eagle Tavern.
Daniel Pomeroy, whose farm was located on the Niagara Escarpment on Lower Mountain and Leete roads at Hickory Corners, was one of the few farmers whose crops survived the summer relatively unscathed. His harvest was plentiful enough to prevent his neighbors from starving. It was believed that the micro-climate at the base of the escarpment protected his plants from the effects of the extreme cold and frosts. Many local people also remembered eating roots and plants, not normally consumed, as a substitute for crops that had been killed in the frosts.
From the conditions recorded in North America, it is hard to believe that any place else could have been worse off, but Northern Europe was even more devastated that year. One story that came out of Europe that summer relates to the writing of the novel, “Frankenstein.” Mary Godwin (she wasn’t Mrs. Shelley yet) was staying with friends (including Lord Byron and future husband Percy Shelley) in a chateau on Lake Geneva. The weather was so bad they could not go out much, so they wrote and told horror stories to amuse themselves. Bryon and Shelley were so impressed with Mary’s tale of a man-made creature, they encouraged her to publish it, which she did in 1818. It was revised in 1830 and became a best-seller.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.
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SOURCE: Lockport Journal