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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 06/19/2009

A Year Without a Summer?

By Capital Weather Gang

* Saturday Storms Follow Fair Friday: Full Forecast | NatCast *

By Don Lipman, Volunteer Contributor

When your grandfather tells you that both winters and summers are not what they used to be, he was probably correct, but not the way you think. He likely meant that that the winters are milder now in the mid-Atlantic but that the summers were even bigger scorchers way back "then" than they are now. The record books do support the former but not the latter.

Prior to the 1940s, when daily and monthly cold-weather records were more common, that included summers too, of course. Yes, we had some very hot summers but we also had some pleasant summers, even here in the Washington area. In fact, if we go back far enough, we come across the famous, or infamous, "Year Without a Summer" of 1816.

Keep reading for more on the Year Without a Summer...

With their wry sense of Yankee humor, New Englanders called it "1816-and-Froze-to Death." One theory holds that the White Mountains of New Hampshire are now white because of it. (The trees literally froze during the growing season and took on a petrified look.)

During that unprecedented summer, snowstorms hit New England, ponds froze, and widespread crop failure occurred. Flurries were even seen as far south as northern Virginia. Although there were hot spells, the cold kept returning, each time with renewed vigor. At the time, easterners were mostly unaware that this was really a worldwide weather phenomenon (at least in the northern hemisphere), so the only thing they could think of doing was leaving, because another year of crop failure would likely spell their doom.

In contemplating which direction to travel, there were only three choices unless the settlers decided to go back where their ancestors came from. They discounted going north, rightfully assuming that it would be even colder than where they came from; south was discounted as well because, although it would be warmer, they believed they would need to learn new farming methods at a different latitude. (The "Equal Latitude Myth" of the era held that weather was quite similar all the way around the world at the same latitude.) So the only direction left and the one that made sense to them was west. It was the start of the great westward migration, a movement which began earlier than it would have, perhaps, were it not for the unusual weather.

It's believed that the violent, sulfur dioxide-laden 1815 eruption of Mt. Tomboro in the East Indies (which blew an estimated 20-40 cubic miles of debris into the atmosphere) was responsible for the famed Year Without a Summer. The eruption caused a sunlight-reflecting sulfuric acid parasol to form high in the atmosphere, thereby depriving the planet of its fair share of "rays." The effect only lasted a year or so but it was severe enough to chill the entire northern hemisphere, somewhat similar, although on a much greater scale, to the after-effects of the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980.

So the next hot day--and I suspect that we'll have plenty of them--be careful what you wish for: cooler weather, yes, but a year without a summer, definitely not.

Footnote: During the depths of that awful summer of 1816, the renowned English poet Lord Byron was, as usual, vacationing in Switzerland on the shores of Lake Geneva. Since the weather was not conducive to outdoor activity, he challenged his esteemed, invited guests to write some sort of horrific horror story, something in keeping with the weather and a story that would live in infamy. The winner of that contest was Mary Shelley, the soon-to-be wife of Percy, and the story did live in infamy. Both were at the gathering. The story was that of Frankenstein, which begins as a tale of a monster found in the frozen North. Could this be a reference to the "Year Without a Summer?"

About the author: After a 30-year "Intelligence Community" career, Don's second life focuses on tennis and weather. When not on the courts, he writes weather articles, which have appeared in community newspapers/newsletters and gives weather talks at senior centers and on cruise ships. He's doing a weather "gig" on the Emerald Princess on Aug. 24 in the Baltic. Interested in going along?

By Capital Weather Gang  | June 19, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Lipman, Local Climate  
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When Krakatoa exploded in 1883, it seems there was some worry that it would have the same effect. I think by then, there had been some correlation made between 1816 and Tomboro (which is one of the largest eruptions on record).

Anyway, it's interesting that it affected the northern hemisphere more than the southern. Don't prevailing winds cross the equator?

Posted by: r3hsad | June 19, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

BTW, the perception of hotter summers in the past might well be fed by the relative lack of air conditioning. We knew how to heat 80 years ago (or even 50) but AC was a lot less prevalent. The summers here are much easier to tolerate if one is inside in front of the AC duct than trying to do anything outside.

Posted by: ah___ | June 19, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Note fm author to "r3hsad": Actually, Tomboro, or Tambora (as well as other spellings), IS south of the equator. It's thought that the reason that this eruption caused so much havoc with the world's weather was because of the high concentration of sulfur dioxide, which caused the aforementioned gaseous "parasol" to envelop the atmosphere. The effect on the southern hemisphere may have been similar but we don't have as much info.

Posted by: Weatherguy | June 19, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

"A year without summer?" I hope so.

Posted by: skywatcher1 | June 19, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

The year without a summer in my memory was the year of the great Midwestern floods, 1992, the year after Mt. Pinatubo erupted. Interestingly enough, it was rather hot and dry here, but my vacation in Wisconsin that summer was a gloomy, rainy experience.

BTW, it's possible that our rather gloomy, rainy weather so far this year may have been influenced by the eruption of Mt. Redoubt earlier this spring. Eruptions of Alaskan volcanoes can affect us here in D.C. [even when it's just Sarah Palin blowing her top].

Posted by: Bombo47jea | June 19, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

"The effect on the southern hemisphere may have been similar but we don't have as much info."

It also bears noting that the majority of the world's land is within the northern hemisphere, so it would be expected that the effect would be noticed more in that part of the world.

Posted by: 1995hoo | June 19, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Summer sucks! Seriously...nothing but high humidity and mosquitoes. I complain about it every year and my wife gets mad at me but I've had enough. I am already counting down to Fall. Doesn't Sunday mark the longest day of the year? That is awesome for one reason: the next day after that we start losing daylight...the first event to indicate that time is on my side.

Posted by: authorofpoetry | June 19, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Thomas Jefferson's records for 1816 show that the ice in his ice house at Monticello did melt until October 11, 1816, which was a month longer than normal. Also, the Maryland Weather Service in 1906 studied the Summer of 1816 and concluded it was 8 degrees F below normal in Baltimore. The next coldest summer was 1836, which was 4.3 degrees below normal. I never found hard proof of a freeze or frost in VA, DC, or MD during the Summer of 1816. As a side note, I remember a 39 degree low temperature at Dulles Airport in August of 1982, so we can see rare summer cold spells.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | June 19, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

That 1982 low at Dulles was actually 38.
On the other hand, the much longer National/city office record has never gone below 49 in August; the most recent was 1986.

Posted by: CapitalClimate | June 20, 2009 1:06 AM | Report abuse

And the DC record has never gone below 50 from June 25 through August 23.

Posted by: CapitalClimate | June 20, 2009 1:12 AM | Report abuse

As a side note to the Summer of 1816, Thomas Jefferson never recorded a low temperature below 51 degrees that summer at Monticello. A temp of 51 in the summer is quite chilly, but not frosty.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | June 20, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

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