Thursday, July 28, 2016

1816: Year Without a Summer

The Mount Tambora caldera is 3.7 miles in diameter.
Two hundred and one years ago - April 1815 -  the volcanic mountain Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, blew its top in a massive, multi-day, explosive series of eruptions, blasting rocks, dust and ash as high as 20 miles. The mountain lost 1/3 of its height and an estimated 35-40 cubic miles of mountaintop. Sounds of the explosions were heard more than 1,000 miles away. As with all things measurable, there is a scale: the volcanic explosivity index (VEI), is similar to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, in that each number is ten times larger than the previous number. Mount St. Helens (1980) was a 5, with an explosive dispersal of an estimated 2/3 of a cubic mile of mountaintop. Mount Tambora (1815) has been retroactively designated a 7, making it the last 7 to occur in recorded history.  

Almost 10,000 miles away from Maynard and Stow - what's the point?  The answer is that across New England, the next year - 1816 - was known as "the year without a summer." High altitude dust and ash from Mount Tambora had spread across the entire globe, reflecting sunlight and causing global cooling. Worldwide, calamitously abnormal weather resulted in drought in some areas and massive flooding in others, crop failures, famine, political unrest, rampant cholera in Asia and typhus in Western Europe.

There were frosts every month. Rare warm spells were pushed out by blasts of cold air descending from Canada. In Salem, one day in late April saw a high of 74F, followed by a night's low of 21F. Snow flurries fell on Boston on June 6th, with snow blanketed the land to the north and west. People wore winter coats and mittens to Fourth of July events. The August 15th issue of the Middlesex Gazette, published in ConcordMA, stated that the weather was "...so cold as to render a fire [in the fireplace] not uncomfortable."

Cold-sensitive crops such as corn never came to harvest. The cost of animal feed tripled. By fall, farmers across New England were butchering their pigs, cows and oxen because they did not have feed to get through the winter. Horses starved. Keep in mind that this calamity predated railroads, so food was difficult to transport from less afflicted regions.

In 1817, spring came late. People feared that a repeat was due. From one account: "Many thought that the wild weather was evidence of God’s divine will. As a result, there was an upswing in religious revivals in 1816 and 1817. Others thought the perverse weather was the result of sunspots, or that cold air from Atlantic icebergs was blowing inland, or that New England’s deforestation was allowing cold winds to blow in from Canada. Many New England farmers, done in by a combination of depleted, rocky soil and merciless weather, decided to head west, which at the time meant western New YorkOhioIllinois, and Indiana. In the decade ending in 1820, more than 200,000 people migrated west from New England."

Locally, not so much. The populations of SudburyStowActon and Concord all increased by about ten percent from 1810 to 1820. (Maynard did not exist until 1871.)  Perhaps this near to the coast the effects had not been as severe as in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, by Lake Geneva, Lord Byron and his co-travelers were having a horrible summer - gloom, unrelenting rain and howling, lightning-ridden thunderstorms. Indoors most of the time, and bored, they challenged each other to create ghost stories. Byron's narrative poem "Darkness" contained the lines: " Morn came, and went—and came, and brought no day/And men forgot their passions in the dread/Of this their desolation; and all hearts/Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light."

Byron's physician friend, John Polidori, was inspired to pen "The Vampyre," with a plot that was the first known to portray this bloodsucking monster as an aristocratic fiend who preys among high society. Mary Wollencraft Shelley began her work on what became her famous novel, "Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus."

For those in fear of a super-volcano apocalypse, know that the last major eruption off the Yellowstone Park hotspot, approximately 640,000 years ago, rated an 8 on the VEI scale. It ejected an estimated 240 cubic miles of rock, dust and ash. Doomsayers point out that Yellowstone is thought by some to have a history of erupting roughly every 500,000 years.

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