The Year Without a Summer

Painting by J.M.W. Turner

Painting by J.M.W. Turner

By Jennie Shurtleff

The weather is a perennially popular topic of conversation. The past few months, the talk has focused mainly on how mild the winter has been in Vermont. However, quirky weather – too warm, too cold, too rainy, too dry -- is nothing new for Vermont.

Two hundred years ago, in 1816, Vermont experienced what has been colloquially termed as “The Year Without a Summer.” That year much of the Northern Hemisphere experienced climate abnormalities and an overall decrease in temperature of .7 – 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

In Northern New England, there was a killing frost in May, snow in June, and a frost again in August.
While there are a number of factors that undoubtedly contributed to such volatile weather patterns, one of the causes cited by some scientists is the eruption of Mount Tambora, located in what is present-day Indonesia. This eruption of the volcano in 1815 was one of largest and most significant in recorded history. During the climax of the eruption, the volcano sent tons of ash into air -- so much ash that some have theorized that it blocked many of the sun’s rays, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, and leading to a drop in temperature and other weather abnormalities throughout Europe and the United States.

How did the weather affect people in Vermont? Most people who were living in Vermont in 1816 were farmers, or at the very least, had their own garden and raised much of their own food. Relatively little was imported from foreign countries or other parts of the United States. Consequently, a regional disaster -- such as a flood, draught, or pervasive frost -- could mean widespread deprivation and hardship. Period letters and diary entries, back this assertion.

Hiram Powers, who was born in Woodstock and went on to become a world-famous sculptor, wrote about the year 1816 and his memories as a child. He noted: “Then came a dreadful season, when famine threatened our whole neighborhood. I recollect we cut down the trees, and fed our few cows on the browse. We lived so long wholly on milk and potatoes, that we got almost to loathe them. There were seven of us children; five at home, and it was hard work to feed us.”

While the ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora appears to have created widespread suffering and difficulties for many New England farm families, it also, ironically, seems to have inspired artists. When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, the ash and volcanic debris in the air and stratosphere appears to have been responsible for creating a “dry fog” in parts of the eastern United States and brilliant sunrises and sunsets in both the United States and Europe. These vibrant skies are captured on the canvases of artist J.M.W. Turner, who is known for the dramatic skies in his paintings during this period.