Two hundred years ago today, on June 7, 1816, it was snowing across much of New England, the upper (U.S.) mid-Atlantic and parts of Canada. Yes, snowing. The curious weather event had begun the previous day, June 6, and continued into the following day, though most places experienced several days of very cold temperatures, whether or not they actually saw snow. It’s hard to imagine snow at the dawn of summer, but it was happening, and few of the observers could make heads or tales of it. They did not yet know it, but they were witnessing one of the most dramatic and memorable manifestations of what has come to be known as the Year Without Summer.
The world in 1816 was experiencing what we now call a volcanic winter. Fourteen months previously, in April 1815, a volcano called Tambora, now in Indonesia, erupted catastrophically, pumping the atmosphere full of particulates including sulfur dioxide (SO2) that had the effect of scattering solar radiation before it could reach the surface of the Earth. The 1815 eruption was ten times more powerful than the 1883 blast at Krakatoa, which is much more well-known, and 100 times more powerful than that of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. The SO2 in the atmosphere affected weather patterns around the world, but it took a while for the effect to be noticed. When it did, in the rainy, chilly and generally disagreeable days in the summer of 1816, it left a big and strange mark on the psyche of the world.
“New England Early Winter” by Samuel Lancaster Gerry, 1849.
My academic research involves the Year Without Summer, which most people don’t realize was only part of a decade-long event of temporary global climate change called the Cold Decade. When I first began researching this event five years ago I was drawn particularly to the eyewitness accounts of the June 1816 snowstorm. Here, in their own words, are a few of the accounts I’ve collected of that strange cold day two centuries ago.
From the Connecticut Herald, June 11, 1816:
The oldest inhabitants in this vicinity do not recollect to have experienced so extraordinary cold weather at this season of the year, as on the 6th, 7th, and 8th inst. We are informed, that on the morning of the 8th the snow drifts on many of the adjacent hills were more than a foot deep. Many sheep have perished with the cold; the birds have sought shelter by flying into the houses, and great numbers have been found dead in the fields. Yesterday morning the frost was severe.
The Connecticut Mirror, June 24, 1816:
As melancholy as it may appear to you, and as distressing as it is to us, yet it is a fact, that there were a number of proper squalls of snow yesterday. Some men left their work out of doors, and employed themselves in the house or barn, on account of the cold. This morning the ground was frozen in some wet places, so that it would bear a man. The ice was from half to three-fourths of an inch thick. Our gardens look like desolation; plants that were flourishing, have dropped their heads.
I took this photo of ancient gravestones in Boston in January 2005. Most of these graves were here in June 1816.
A report from Canada, then a British possession:
QUEBEC, June 13. We noticed in this paper of Thursday last, the 6th instant, the extraordinary circumstance of a fall of snow, of upwards of an hour’s duration, on that day. Since that time, the weather has presented more permanent and extraordinary features of severity….On the 7th there was a slight fall of snow during the whole day, the thermometer constantly standing at the freezing point. At half-past ten o’clock at night, the roofs of the houses, the streets and square of the town, were completely covered with snow…Among the many unusual circumstances with accompanied a state of weather so entirely unexampled in the memory of the inhabitants or in the annals of the country, we have to notice that on Thursday, great numbers of birds, which are never found but in the distant forests, resorted to the city, and were to be met with in every street, and even among the shipping. Many of them dropped down dead in the streets, and many were destroyed by thoughtless or cruel persons…In almost every house the stoves were regularly heated the same as in winter.
The Georgetown (South Carolina) Gazette, September 24, 1816:
In Peacham, Vt., on the 7th of June, Mr. Joseph Walker, aged 88, lost himself in a wood in a snow storm, and his feet were frozen so that it was necessary to amputate his toes!
There are many, many stories in the record of this fascinating event, and of many other strange weather anomalies from the year 1816 and the Cold Decade. It’s a pretty strange but interesting subject. I wouldn’t imagine there are any commemorations of the snowstorm going on in New England on its 200th anniversary, but if you’re perhaps reading this within view of a window looking out onto some old Northeast landscape, take just a moment and imagine what it would be like if it was covered with snow…in a year when the winter never ended.