July 9: “The Year Without a Summer”


The winters of the early 19th century — the last decades of the “Little Ice Age” that chilled North America and Europe for centuries — were among the coldest in Connecticut’s recorded history, with salt-water harbors freezing over on a regular basis and blizzards that regularly dumped several feet of snow on the state at a time.  It was the bitterly cold summertime weather of 1816, however, that made national headlines.

A report from the Republican Farmer details the unusual weather during the summer of 1816.

Alternating periods of overnight frosts and extended droughts from May through October caused residents throughout New England to refer to 1816 as “the year without a summer” or, more ominously, “the poverty year,” as the wildly oscillating temperatures caused widespread crop failure throughout the region.

On July 9th, overnight temperatures in Connecticut plummeted well below freezing (into the 20s, by some accounts!), resulting in a heavy frost that killed the few summer crops that had managed to survive the preceding frosts of May and June.  As a result, prices for flour, wheat, and other food staples rose dramatically as the year progressed, and families struggled to procure sufficient food both for themselves and their livestock.  Ultimately, the agricultural hardships of 1816 also accelerated the outmigration of thousands of New Englanders to western states and territories like Ohio and the soon-to-be states of Illinois and Indiana.

Today, scientists pin most of the blame for 1816’s freakish summer weather on volcanic ash originating from the eruption of Mount Tambora in modern-day Indonesia — the largest and most explosive volcanic eruption ever recorded in human history.  Mount Tambora had erupted in April 1815, but it had taken a year for the massive amounts of volcanic ash to travel 10,000 miles in the Earth’s atmosphere and begin affecting the weather of the northeastern United States.  Combined with the already chilling effects of the Little Ice Age period, it created a year of wild weather that Connecticans would not soon forget.

Further Reading

Shirley T. Wajda, “Eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death: 1816, The Year Without a Summer,” connecticuthistory.org

Robert Evans, “Blast from the Past,” Smithsonian Magazine