Snow on June 17th?

It happened in 1816, and it wasn’t the only snow storm in Maine that June.  The cold summer of 1816 has become known as the “The Year Without A Summer”.  Snow or frost occurred in every New England state during every month of the summer.   The morning of July 4th was a frosty one, and a thin coat of ice covered most ponds.  Crops failed, trees did not bear fruit, and the reality is, some people went hungry and staved due to the unusual weather during the summer of 1816.

The Eastern Argus newspaper in Portland printed that on June 5 th and 6 th, 9”-12” of snow fell over Down East. Newly shorn sheep froze to death, crops failed. Birds died. People were not far from starvation. Throughout New England it snowed during five days in June. Wild temperature swings throughout the area were common. In some places, the high temperature on June 6 th was 27 degrees lower than it had been on June 5 th.

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From Millbridge Historical Society
A Diarist from Fryeburg wrote. On June 17 th, there was a heavy fall of snow. The morning of the 17 th dawned with the thermometer below the freezing point. A farmer, searching for a lost flock of sheep, was out all day in the storm and failed to return at night. He was found three days later lying in a hollow on a side hill with both feet frozen.

July came in with ice and snow. On the 4 th of July, ice as thick as window glass, formed throughout New England, New York, and some parts of Pennsylvania.

“August proved to be the worst month of all. There was great privation and thousands of persons in this country would have perished but for the abundance of fish and wild game.”

Newspapers of the day all suggested that people continue to replant fodder crops on nice days. They gave many solutions for feeding the farm animals, many of which were dying for lack of food, but seemed to have no suggestions for feeding the people.

Not only were domesticated animals starving, but wild animals were, too. Packs of wolves, made so hungry by the unseasonable summer, were attacking farmer’s sheep and chickens. It was so bad in 1816 that four Maine townships voted bounties on wolves up to $40.00.

The real disaster in New England in the summer of 1816 was the lack of the staple crop of Indian corn. No corn survived. This was no minor matter. Corn fed people and animals, it was a cash crop and it sustained cattle for the urban market. The loss of the corn crop was a bonafide disaster on the small isolated farms, where self-sufficiency & survival was a delicate balance between people & the plants and animals they raised.

Although corn was non-existent and in many places potatoes and hay weren’t available, some grains did quite well but prices rose dramatically due to the scarcity. Oats, for example, rose from 12 cents a bushel the previous year to 92 cents a bushel in 1816. By June 19 th, 1817, the New York Post protested, “…the high prices which meats, vegetables, butter, milk, and in short everything in our market continue to bear can be viewed in no other light than the greatest of impositions on our citizens… and call…for some general measure of redress.” That year in New Hampshire, hay was selling for $180.00 a ton, its general price being $30.00. In Maine, potatoes were 75 cents a bushel, the price in the spring of 1816 having been 40 cents.

The people did have some food but probably no fresh vegetables & fruits. Without good nutrition, there was a lot of sickness. The lowered temperatures and particularly moist conditions played a pivotal role in the rampant spread of disease. Scientists frequently blame Ireland’s rainy cold summer for the typhus epidemic of 1816-1819. The epidemic later spread to Europe and ultimately claimed the lives of 200,000 people.

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Photo by Eric Werme
In Ashland NH, Reuben Whitten shared his wheat crop with his neighbors. After his death in 1847, they paid for his headstone in his family graveyard. Later, relatives erected a monument saying “A pioneer of this town. Cold season of 1816 raised 40 bushels of wheat on this land which kept his family and neighbors from starvation.” His farm was on a south facing hillside, so probably benefited from the extra sun and being above the valley chill.

The 1816 experience was a disaster in Maine. It was the primary motivation for the rapid settlement of what is now the American mid-west. So many people migrated to Ohio that in Maine the migration was referred to as “ Ohio fever.” One diarist wrote: “Many left Maine because of loss of crops and fear of starvation. There was much sickness.” In his ­­History of Maine Agriculture, Clarence Day devotes a whole chapter to the flight of Maine farmers westward in 1816. He tells us that on a single day a train of 16 wagons with 120 men, women & children from Durham, ME passed through Haverhill. They were headed for Indiana. Another day, there were 20 wagons & 116 people on their way westward, all from Maine.

The loss of population became so alarming that letters began to appear in newspapers arguing the merits of Maine, and defects of the western country. Every conceivable argument in favor of Maine was offered; the absence of malaria, the nearness of Europe – even good sledding in winter! However, true to the feelings of Down Easters, both natives and those from away, later it was written that “The weather had improved in the summer of 1817, and many people had returned to Maine, finding no better place to live.”

WHY SO COLD?

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The cold summer of 1816 occurred during the tail end of the “Little Ice Age” in an abnormally cold period between 1770 and 1860.  To understand what caused the cold to become extreme though, you have to start over a year earlier.  The largest volcanic eruption in over 1,300 years on April 10th 1815 of Mount Tambora on a small Island of Indonesia was the single event that changed the worlds climate the following year.  An immense amount of volcanic ash was spewed into the upper troposphere and stratosphere, and in the coming months, was circulated around the world.   Ash itself can scatter solar radiation and act similar to clouds. In addition, the ash acts as a condensation nuclei to help more and more cloud droplets to form.  The combination of low solar activity and generally more clouds globally produced the “The Year Without a Summer” in 1816.

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A FEW (SOMEWHAT AMUSING) THOUGHTS ON CAUSES FROM THE TIME

Some believe it was caused by sinners and others by Ben Franklin. Although, at the time, no one understood the reason for the lack of a summer in 1816, a few scholars of the day suggested that an outbreak of sunspots had caused the chill. It was a guess. They really had no way of determining the actual cause of the oddly extended winter, but the crackpots of the day presented explanations without hesitation. One theory was that witches were responsible as weather making was thought to be among the traditional abilities of witches. Others blamed it on the displeasure of the Deity.

Another suggested that Benjamin Franklin was to blame, citing his newly invented lightning rods. They felt the rods interrupted the earth’s process of releasing heat into the atmosphere. This, they felt, resulted in cooling of the air which resulted in the missed summer of 1816. Not all thinkers of the day accepted that theory, but a runner-up explanation also blamed Franklin. This group felt that since lightning is heat, it must follow that the lightning rods had taken the heat from air – hence no summer.

The ironic part of this is that Benjamin Franklin himself, thirty-two years before, had speculated that dust from volcanic eruptions could affect climate by blocking out sunlight. And he was right.
(Reported from Millbridge Historical Society)

 

COULD IT HAPPEN AGAIN

Absolutely, and most likely will. The big question always is when.  A major eruption like Mt Tambora in April of 1815 was the strongest in over a thousand years.  On a smaller scale, many scientists now attribute the abnormally cool and wet late spring/early summer in 2009 to the volcanic eruption of Mount Redoubt in Alaska several months earlier.  2009 was one of the strangest springs and summers in recent memory.  Portland reached 90 degrees once in April and again in May.  After that the temperature never got above 80 degrees until July 21st.  Quite often when it wasn’t raining, it was drizzling.  I recall running my wood stove several times in June that year. Luckily though, the cool and wet weather did not last all summer in 2009. More pleasant condition returned in July and August.

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Ever since I started studying weather many years ago, I’ve always had a fascination with this cold summer of 1816.  It must have been such a shock to New Englanders in a time when the science of meteorology and weather technology was in it’s infant stages. I enjoy reading stories from that era in historical records. If you have some documentation to share about the cold summer of 1816 here in Maine. I’d love to see it.
clopresti@wgme.sbgtv.com

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I’m happy to report fairly typical mid to late June weather this week. Instead of snow and frost, 70s and 80s are common. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Charlie Lopresti

About Charlie Lopresti

Charlie makes up the "Weather Part" of CBS News 13s evening edition. A native New Englander, he grew up enjoying the area's exciting and sometimes wild weather.