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Reliving 1816, the Year Without a Summer—On Twitter.

[Originally posted May 12 at my previous blog]

There is a new series of tweets starting on my Twitter account today that I thought I would share with you. This has to do with the research project I’ve been working on for most of the last eighteen months, and which is likely to become a book someday: the “Year Without a Summer.”

Many people have heard of the “Year Without a Summer,” but few people know anything about it. It’s an obscure but intensely interesting event in the environmental history of our planet. In many parts of the world in the year 1816, the summer never came. A rapid temporary climate change—a volcanic winter—caused havoc over many parts of the globe.

In April 1815, a volcano called Tambora—located on Sumbawa Island, in what is now Indonesia—erupted catastrophically. The explosion resulted in a gigantic column of ash nearly 25 miles high, pumping about 60 megatons of particulate matter directly into the Earth’s stratosphere. The crater caused by this massive explosion is visible from space. Just by way of comparison, the Tambora eruption of 1815 was one hundred times more powerful than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in May 1980. It was the single most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded human history, ten times larger than the eruption of its much more well-known cousin, Krakatoa, in 1883.

The key ingredient in the dust that Tambora spewed into the upper atmosphere was sulfur dioxide. A funny thing happens with sulfur dioxide when it’s suspended in the atmosphere: it tends to absorb heat from the sun and scatter it, resulting in less energy reaching the ground. Sulfur dioxide from volcanoes can remain suspended in the atmosphere for years and circle the entire globe. This is precisely what happened in this case. We know, because scientists have found layers of Tambora fallout in ice cores taken at opposite poles of the Earth, in Greenland and Antarctica.

The effects of the Tambora eruption on the Earth’s climate were dramatic. Red and yellow snow fell in Italy on New Year’s Eve. Cold and dry conditions persisted in New England and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard well into the late spring of 1816. In May and June, violent temperature fluctuations were recorded in Massachusetts and New York. Most startlingly, a freak snowstorm struck most of the Northeast on June 7th. Reports of how much snow fell vary by location, but there were certainly snowdrifts up to eighteen inches deep in parts of Vermont, and in Canada the ice on lakes was thick enough to walk on without breaking. Inexplicable cold snaps continued to occur throughout the summer, with sharp frosts recorded in many places in the United States even in the dog days of August. The repeated heavy frosts destroyed crops, caused animal die-offs and concerns about food security. Across the Atlantic the situation was even worse. Heavy rains fell for most of the summer in central Europe, and ruined crops resulted in famine. The weather anomalies in Europe proved to have a lasting effect on Western culture. The bad weather in the summer of 1816 kept Mary Shelley, her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron cooped up in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. There, to amuse themselves, they told each other ghost stories—one of which developed into Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

The very strange film Gothic, made in 1986 and directed by avant-garde filmmaker Ken Russell, takes place at the Villa Diodati during the summer of 1816 and describes (in a fictional way) the creation of Frankenstein. This movie, which I originally saw in the 80s, was one of the things that got me interested in this subject. Just for grins I’ll embed the trailer for the film here in this blog even though it’s not really that much on topic.

I’ve spent much of the last year and a half researching the Year Without a Summer, particularly people’s reactions to it—their attempts to explain it through scientific or pseudoscientific means, religious and spiritual responses, the event as reflected in art, and even political ramifications. This research has taken me to archives on both coasts of the United States and consumed hundreds of hours of my time. In all of that time I’ve collected a tremendous amount of interesting tidbits about things that happened that strange summer, especially weather events. It is these tidbits that I plan to begin sharing on Twitter.

Starting this coming week, at 6:16 PM (18:16), I’ll post a fact or occurrence related to the strange weather of 1816 that occurred on the exact same day 196 years ago. I’ll identify each tweet in this series with the hashtag #YearWithoutSummer. For example, it snowed in many parts of the Northeast on June 7; at 6:16 PM on that day you may see a tweet to the effect of, “7 June 1816. Snow begins in Bennington, VT at noon, continues for several hours. #YearWithoutSummer.” If there are multiple tweets on the same day, I’ll send them out within a few minutes of each other.

All of these facts come from the body of research I’ve collected for my project. I don’t know if anyone else will find this as interesting as I do, but it’ll be there for what it’s worth.

This subject is not only a particular interest of mine, but it’s also related to current issues involving global warming denial. There are significant commonalities between the Year Without a Summer and contemporary issues of man-made climate change. In 1816 the planet was becoming colder, not warmer, and it was the result of volcanic eruptions, not greenhouse gases, but both the scientific and the cultural issues involved are strikingly similar.

One of the most surprising things I encountered in my research was a great deal of evidence that people in 1816 understood what global climate change was and that humans were a likely cause of it. Today we associate the issue with fossil fuels, emissions from cars and factories, and other products of our industrialized world. But did you know that Thomas Jefferson predicted man-made climate change in 1785, before the Industrial Revolution began? He said it in Notes on the State of Virginia, where he asserts that human settlement will gradually erode the forests and wilderness and cause the climate to get warmer as a result. In 1816, in connection with the weather anomalies, a spirited debate occurred on newspaper editorial pages across the United States. The debate was whether the Earth was experiencing global warming or global cooling, and if so, how the weather events of that summer should be interpreted. No one knew what a “greenhouse gas” was in 1816, but there was clearly an awareness of the implications of climate change, and disagreement over both its causes and the appropriate responses.

In an even more eerie premonition of modern conditions, one newspaper—the Essex Register of Salem, Massachusetts—spent much of the summer of 1816 denying that the climate anomalies were even occurring. The arguments used to explain why it wasn’t happening, or, if it was, why it wasn’t as bad as everyone said, are remarkably similar in structure and spirit to arguments used by contemporary global warming deniers. Clearly in 1816 there was something deeply unsettling about climate change. Understanding the basis and nature of these responses in this historical context may help us understand similar reactions to modern conditions, and provide valuable understanding as our society continues to seek a consensus on the appropriate responses to anthropogenic climate change.

I hope you enjoy this series of tweets. If you like them, retweet them! You’d be surprised how many people find the “Year Without a Summer” fascinating once they understand what it was about.

Thanks for reading.

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