A Year Without a Summer?
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?
Capital Weather Gang
| June 19, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: Lipman, Local Climate
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