Episode 45: Year Without Summer, Part I

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The “Year Without Summer,” 1816, is one of those things that many people have heard of, but very few know anything substantive about. It was the largest environmental event of the Second Decade. Two volcanic eruptions, one from an unknown mountain in 1809 and the second the disastrous blast of Mt. Tambora in April 1815, filled the atmosphere with toxic particulates and triggered a period of global temporary climate change. But what was it like on the ground to the people who lived through it? What does the name “Year Without Summer” really mean, and what doesn’t it mean? Who noticed it first, and how? These are some of the many questions still swirling around this much-misunderstood event in environmental history.

In this episode, perhaps the touchstone of the entire podcast, historian Sean Munger will take you to the frigid roads of New England during an unseasonable blizzard, and the decks of ships sailing the South Pacific in conditions that baffled even the most seasoned mariners as well as many other places in the strange spring and early summer of 1816. This is the central story of the Second Decade, and as such connects with numerous other SD installments, such as Episode 7 (Tambora), 13 (Lincoln), 3 (Frost Fair) and 24 (Cold Friday). This is the first of a projected three-part miniseries on the topic.

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Additional Materials About This Episode

Given the nature of this topic, it’s unusually difficult to find “extras” that lend themselves well to this page.

[Above] Mt. Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, as seen from modern satellite photography. The mere appearance of this gigantic crater attests to the incredible violence of the April 1815 eruption. Before the blast, Tambora was said to resemble Mt. Fuji in Japan. Now it’s this: a scarred, hollowed-out landscape that wouldn’t look out of place on the Moon.

[Above] Chauncey Jerome, whose reminiscences about the Year Without Summer open the episode. Jerome (1793-1868) was actually a clockmaker who revolutionized the clock business in the United States, and his memoir, published in 1860, was mostly about that. Despite his innovations, Jerome was a terrible businessman, lost his great fortune and died virtually penniless a few years after the Civil War.

Link to Chauncey Jerome’s History of the American Clock Business on Archive.org

[Above] A graph tracking the numbers and appearance of sunspots from 1600 to the present century. Note that 1816 falls not only in a down period of the normal cycle, but also within the “Dalton Minimum,” the recent historical nadir of sunspot activity. That makes it all the stranger that sunspots are so erroneously asserted to have been at an all-time high at the time of the Year Without Summer, when in fact almost the exact opposite is true. [Graph by Robert Rodhe, used under Creative Commons 3.0 license].

Link to Sarah Anna Emery’s Reminiscences of a Nonagenarian, in which her recollections of the Year Without Summer appear (Archive.org)

Unless otherwise specified, all pictures are believed to be in the public domain.

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