Hot! Whodathunkit? “1800 And Froze to Death”


DidYouSeeThatSPORTS is unveiling a recurring article theme, to be titled: Whodathunkit? If you see this prefix affixed to any future posts you will know that those articles will be centered on interesting yet little known historical, scientific, or popular culture tidbits of which everyone should be made aware. 

Not at all unlike two of Jerry’s previous offerings — “If the World Ended, How Would It Happen?,” and “Planets, Planets Everywhere,” — this piece describes the weather of 1816, the coldest summer in modern history. Whodathunkit? 

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While everyone these days is concerned about global warming, only about two hundred years ago, it was hardly a problem. The year 1816 started like any other, but by the end of the year, it would be quite memorable. 1816 is commonly known as “The Year Without a Summer,” “The Summer That Never Was,” and my personal fave, “1800 and Froze To Death.” We have seen strange weather events in our lives, but nothing compares to the “summer” of 1816. In May of that year, frost killed off most of the crops that snowhad been planted in Europe and Northeast America. Nearly a foot of snow fell in Quebec City in early June, and fell in smaller amounts in Upstate New York and New England. Let me repeat that. Snow. In June. Stranger still, river and lake ice was found as far south as Pennsylvania during July and August. The high temperature on the 4th of July in Savannah was 46 degrees! A continuous “dry fog” lasted from spring to summer in the Northeast, keeping sunlight from reaching the ground and warming the air. Red snow fell in Italy and brown snow in Hungary. During the winter that followed, the temperature in New York City hit -26 Fahrenheit, cold enough to freeze the harbor and allow horse-drawn sleighs to travel from Brooklyn to Governor’s Island. But it wasn’t always cold that summer. In fact, the weather shifted dramatically, changing from temperatures in the nineties one day to near-freezing the next. Really weird stuff. snow oats

So, remember how I said that most of the crops were killed off by the frost? Only about one third to one fourth of the hay was usable, with the number being as low as one tenth in some places. Well, that caused the food prices to skyrocket. Oats alone rose from 12 cents per bushel to 92 cents.That kind of increase was enough to cause starvation, “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world.” No only that, but the lack of oat availability also led to a lack of travel and transport. This is because the world in 1816 was still horse-based. Without oats to feed horses, people weren’t going anywhere, kind of like the gas crisis after Hurricane Sandy. Over in Europe, famine was a major problem in Ireland where the cold weather caused the potato, wheat, and oat crops to fail. This also resulted in a Typhus epidemic. Due to the starvation, there were riots and demonstrations in Europe, but those could do no good. The governments and aristocracy were not to blame for the cold summer.


River Thames Frost Fair

So, what in the hell was to blame? Well, a year like this is not due to one simple reason. It was a perfect storm of sorts. To start with, the world was at the tail end of what is known as the “Little Ice Age.” This climate event took place from the 16th to the 19th century. While it was not a typical, glacier-covering ice age, it was a period of noticeably cooler climate. Scientists don’t agree as to the cause of this cooling, but its effects were obvious. Across the world, but especially in Europe, rivers typically froze deep enough for people to skate. Winter festivals even took place on the ice, like the River Thames Frost Fair. I could go on for a long time about the Little Ice Age, and the subject definitely warrants it own post, but for the sake of brevity, check out the wikipedia article about it. One of the possible causes of the “Year Without a Summer,” and even the “Little Ice Age” is a solar minimum. The Sun goes through cycles, noted in the amount of sunspots on its surface. 1816 marked a point in the middle of a period of low magnetic activity called the “Dalton Minimum.” So, this lack of solar activity could have also been a factor. The most likely cause of “1800 and Froze to Death,” however, was the eruption of Mount Tambora on an Indonesian island in 1815. It was the largest eruption since the year 180. The explosion threw large amounts of volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere, blocking out a significant amount of sun. This is also an explanation for the odd-colored snow falling in Europe. It is hard to believe that a volcano can cause something like this, but I guess being the biggest eruption in a thousand years could do it. Imagine what would happen if Yellowstone erupts? But I digress… frankenstein

Aside from it just being an interesting story, the “Year Without a Summer” had some historical impact. For one, it may have hastened the migration of settlers into the Midwest in America. Farming conditions and soil were much better out there, and so was the weather that year.Thousands of people moved West in order to start farms when they were wiped out in the Northeast. One of those was Joseph Smith, who left Vermont to settle in western New York, and ultimately published the Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hooray? Also, since horses couldn’t be used, (since there were not enough oats) German inventor Karl Drais tried to develop a mode of horseless transport. This led to his invention of the velocipede, a primitive form of the bicycle. My favorite, though, is this little gem: during that summer, Mary Shelley and friends were on holiday in Switzerland. Because the weather was so crappy, they decided to stay inside and compete to see who could write the scariest story. She penned “Frankenstein.” Pretty cool, huh? Next time you have a snow day from work, you better get off your butt and write a damn masterpiece too.

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Jerry Galante is a corporate cataloging librarian. He has a BA in History and a Masters in Library Science and is through with people complaining about the weather. If you enjoyed this post, you should check out Jerry’s previous offerings, “If the World Ended, How Would It Happen?,” “Planets, Planets Everywhere,” & “Terrific TV Twosomes.”


Jerry Galante

1 Comment

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