When Summer Wouldn't Come (Part Three of Three)

Continued from Part Two

The gloomy weather that had already inspired Mary Shelley and Lord Byron to write some of their most somber works was having a similar impact on other writers as well,

While Jane Austen was enjoying positive reviews from her previous novel, Emma, her work on the new novel that would become Persuasion, was offset by the general pessimism resulting from what was happening in much of the world.  "Oh!  It rains again; it beats against the window,"  she wrote in a letter to her nephew.  "Such weather gives one little temptation to be out.  It is really too bad & has been for a long time, much worse than anyone could bear, & I begin to think it will never be fine again."    Whether due to the depressed mood caused by the weather or her own awareness of her worsening health, Persuasion would turn out to show a somewhat different worldview than her previous novels. 

But the cultural impact of the various literary works inspired by the Year Without A Summer still lay in the future.   For the millions of people affected by the bitterly cold weather, survival was more important.   With unseasonal frost destroying crops well into August in many places, and drought striking many other regions, the prospect of starvation seemed increasingly likely.    If the world failed to come to an end as predicted, things would become very dicey.  Especially when  early frost hit in September and ruined what few crops had managed to survive the cold summer.   Economic refugees fleeing impending famine in many regions became a common sight.   Though the United States had its own problems, the number of emigrants, especially from countries such as Ireland, rose substantially. 

With the prospect of famine in so many places, export of grain and other agricultural products dropped to an all-time low.   Not only did the price of grain skyrocket, but politicians were pressured against allowing food to be sold to other countries when it was needed locally.    Ironically, the cost of meat dropped as farmers, with no grain available to feed their animals, decided to butcher them instead.    Many of those same farmers decided to pack up all their possessions and head west to try their luck in the less developed territories..   

While they were all driven by economic hardship, some farmers traveled with the hope of establishing religious communities where they could presumably ride out the End Times in which they found themselves.   Among these refugees was Joseph Smith Senior, who took his entire family with him to western New York where his son, Joseph Smith Junior, would reportedly experience the visions that led to his founding the Church of the Latter Day Saints.   Another group known only as Pilgrims followed their leader, the bizarre Isaac Bullard,  into Arkansas and oblivion.

As 1816 drew to a close, various attempts at a scientific explanation for what was happening did little to reassure people that things would get better in future.   Revivalism 517St4xgkbL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_[1]movements continued gathering new converts with numerous new missionary groups being formed.    The bitterly cold winter of 1816-1817 meant sub-zero temperatures even in places where winter was usually mild.   The price of food continued to rise and many farmers who had refused to quit during the previous year simply gave up and sold their farms.   While Maine and other states along the Eastern seaboard had a sharp population decrease, territories in Ohio, Illinois, and the rest of what would be called America's heartland exploded with new settlements.    Despite the tension between old and new settlers and the hardship of life on the frontier, most of these economic refugees decided to stay.

In the meantime, things were slowly improving.   The price of wheat eventually stabilized and declined and the harvest of 1817 actually looked hopeful.    In Europe, the massive suffering caused by the Year Without A Summer slowly receded as weather patterns returned to normal.   Though there were still food riots in the first half of 1817, the grumbling subsided as food became affordable again.     Despite a massive typhus epidemic in Ireland that would claim thousands of lives, London became better able to provide aid.  The apocalyptic predictions subsided as well when people began to realize that life would go on the way it always had. 

Not that there weren't still countries particularly hard hit by famine.  Switzerland's population declined as thousands emigrated to other countries and the prospect of famine for the ones who remained was enough to inspire the birth of a new revivalism movement there.  Still known as the Hungerjahre, 1817 was one of the few years in Switzerland's history with more deaths than births.   Other countries reported similar hardships as the worldwide aerosol cloud from Tambora slowly worked its way through the stratosphere.  Still, by the end of 1817, weather patterns were slowly recovering.   By the summer of 1818, the temperatures on both sides of the Atlantic had more or less returned to normal but the legacy of hardship left by the Year Without a Summer would last far longer.

Not until the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 would scientists finally be able to piece together the link between large volcanic eruptions and weather patterns.  Based on weather data taken following the Krakatoa eruption, along with two other major eruptions that occurred over the next two decades, American meteorologist William Jackson Humphreys published a seminal paper on the link between volcanic eruptions and weather changes.   In his paper,  Humphreys established that major eruptions such as Krakatoa could lead to global cooling and possibly even trigger ice ages depending on the amount of dust and ash released into the atmosphere.   While other meteorologists were reluctant to support Humphreys' conclusion at first, long-term reliable observations established that large volcanic eruptions did lead to rapid cooling and widespread weather disruptions.  By linking modern meterology to the known information on the Mount Tambora eruption, the mystery of the Year Without A Summer was finally solved.

And the disastrous consequences of Tambora are still with us in surprising ways.  Mary Shelley's book, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, became an unlikely bestseller, not to mention launching the science fiction genre.   For that matter, John Polidori's work, The Vampyre, has inspired countless vampire novels and movies.    Joseph Smith Junior, whose family had been uprooted by Tambora and who grew up in a community stirred up by the  revivalism it generated, would found his own church based on his own religious visions.  Would any of these remarkable events have come to pass were it not for Tambora's eruption?   You be the judge.

What would happen if another massive eruption caused a new Year Without A Summer?   While Tambora is still active with regular eruptions every few decades (the last eruption was in 1967), the likelihood of another eruption approaching the magnitute of the 1815 eruption seems comparatively small.    Still, there are other volcanoes and the potential of massive eruptions occuring elsewhere is very real.  With a world population already at seven billion and agriculture that is hard-pressed to prevent famine even now, the devastation resulting from the kind of weather seen in 1816 and 1817 is a nightmare scenario that we seem unwilling to face.

So spare a thought for how a volcanic eruption in a remote part of the world could transform life on a global scale.  And hope that we are better prepared the next time it occurs.



Related Stories

  • When Summer Wouldn't Come (Part 2 of 3)
  • When Summer Wouldn't Come (Part One of Three)
  • Exploring the Hollow Earth


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