May 29, 2013

Pinch of time: Weird weather in 1816 affected North Country

The bags of mulch are stacked on the front porch, ready to keep the weeds down in my flower gardens. The only problem is the not-yet-bloomed flowers are soaked.

Where did all this rain come from? Back in early May, I thought we had it made with early sunshine and nice weather. I should have known better.

Snow in northern New York on May 25? Say it isn’t so, but it has been worse.

“The Year Without a Summer” happened in 1816, the result of an incident in April 1815. According to, it would take more than 100 years before scientists understood why.

On the remote island of Sumbawa stood Mount Tambora, a volcano 12,000 feet high. On April 5, 1815, it started to rumble, much to everyone’s surprise.

No cell phones in those days, not even a telegraph on that tiny island — historians have had to rely on eyewitness accounts, in particular Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, who was serving as governor of Java at the time.

Sir Thomas published a brilliant account of the day, gathered from English traders and military personnel. Accounts state that on April 10, the volcano blew its top, shooting fire into the sky in three columns.

It was thought that a gun battle was ensuing on the ocean. Military troops were dispatched, and ships were sent to help in the fight. Can you imagine their surprise, wandering around on the Indian Ocean looking for a battle and finding none?

Inhabitants on an island 10 miles to the south said the entire mountain looked like it was turning to liquid fire, throwing stones of volcanic matter onto neighboring islands. Reports state that the eruptions were accompanied by violent winds, small earthquakes and tsunamis. Archaeologists have uncovered settlements that were wiped out.

By fall of 1815, London was experiencing some of the eeriest sunsets the city had ever seen. In the following year, dust particles from Mount Tambora were carried by wind currents across the world. Weather in Europe and North America was drastically affected. Spring and summer were cold, crops didn’t grow, and a food shortage ensued.

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Pinch of Time