Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Year Without a Summer

by C.J. Chase

Our local weather service predicts our first heat wave of the season for this week, so I thought I’d keep cool by writing about “The Year Without a Summer.” If you’re facing a string of 90-degree days, skipping summer might sound like a pleasant change. Unfortunately, for those who lived in 1816, the abnormally cool weather was anything but agreeable.

Scientists now believe a convergence of unusual solar activity and a massive ash cloud from the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora created a “volcanic winter” throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere that year. Spring proceeded much as usual, but by June, a shift in weather patterns emerged.

Much of Europe endured frequent clouds and rain. Parts of Ireland and England saw just nine (9!) rain-free days for the entire summer. Switzerland experienced roughly twice the rainfall for that season. Rivers flooded, adding to the destruction. While Europe struggled with a deluge, the situation on the other side of the Atlantic was exactly the opposite. Newspapers carried stories of prolonged drought in northern states.

Worse, when it wasn’t raining (or not raining, in the case of North America), it was snowing. In June, snow twelve inches deep fell in Quebec, while about six inches covered the ground in parts of New England and New York. July brought reports of frost, while by August, heavy snowfall was again reported in Eastern Canada. As far south as Pennsylvania, lakes and rivers were iced over in August. London experienced snow in May and July.

Seeds rotted in the fields. Those that germinated soon found the tender young plants succumbing to frost, flood, or drought. Then the killing frosts of autumn came early and ended an already dismal growing season. With harvests reduced by 50%, 75%, and even 90% in some areas, the costs of fruit, vegetables and grains skyrocketed. (The price of meat, however, fell as farmers butchered livestock they couldn’t afford to feed.)

The unseasonable cold disrupted shipping as sea lanes, rivers, and lakes froze. With transportation hampered, provisions could not be easily delivered to places where the famine was most severe. North America, with its smaller, more rural population and plentiful forests suffered less than Europe. People survived on wild game, including raccoons and pigeons.

In France and Switzerland—the epicenter for the below-average temperatures—starvation brought on food riots. In Switzerland, where people resorted to eating moss, the government published information about recognizing poisonous plants for those forced to forage for sustenance. England too suffered its share of rioting as unemployment (brought on by the end of the Napoleonic Wars) collided with shortages and rising prices. In times of fear and famine, "civilization" often breaks down.

Poor harvests brought famine, and famine begat disease. Weakened by hunger and malnutrition, people succumbed to a deadly cholera epidemic that spread across Asia and Europe.

“The Year Without a Summer” was the last wide-spread famine in the Western world. I sometimes wonder what would happen should I ever face such a severe crisis. Imagine how quickly your grocery store shelves would empty if half or more of this year’s crops failed or if transportation problems made delivery of food all but impossible.

Irving Berlin’s God Bless America begins with the line, “As the storm clouds gather, far beyond the sea…” Right now, storm clouds are gathering in Europe again. Not the clouds of volcanic ash or war, but of financial collapse.

If my children were hungry, would I riot and horde? Would I be ruled by fear? Or would I learn to lean on the Lord and share generously with those in need? Several years ago, the late Chuck Colson spoke of the opportunity that comes with economic hardship. We can spread fear...or we can spread Christ. When people hunger for food and meaning and direction, will they see Jesus in me?

It's a sobering thought.

The "Year Without a Summer" was tragic, but there were had several positive effects associated with it. Do you know what some of them were? Feel free to show off your Jeopardy potential in the comments section. (Googling is allowed since unlike Jeopardy, we don't give cash prizes.)

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her next book, The Reluctant Earl, will be out in early 2013. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at cjchasebooks.com 


  1. We've had a few summers that resemble this-- Two years ago, we had mostly wet and cool weather all summer and it really makes a difference in the crops. Last summer was a drought. We are so removed from the cycles of farming and nature that most people are forgetting that it's not just about going to the grocery store.

    Very interesting, C.J. I wonder if this has ever been one of the "When WEather Changed History" episodes on the Weather Chaonel?

  2. Deb, I don't recall finding anything on The Weather Channel's website when I was researching this. (My next book takes place against the backdrop of the food riots that followed, which is how I started researching this.)

    There have been food riots elsewhere in the world quite recently. All I have to do to wonder what the stores would look like is walk into Walmart 3 days before a hurricane. The shelves were bare.

  3. Hmm...that would be an interesting tidbit to add to my 1817 story. Any idea what the conditions were in Virginia?

  4. Dina, what time in 1817? From what I read, the winter of 1816-1817 was pretty cold. However, by spring/summer of 1817, things were much more normal. Even then, food would have been limited and expensive until the harvests of 1817.

    The mentions I found of Virginia in 1816 indicate the abnormal cold extended this far south, but I don't recall any mentions of summer frost and snow like in the northern states and Canada. I think I read about temperatures in the 40's as far south as Savannah. You could have your characters mention the previous year's conditions if there's a place in the book that it fits. I had originally envisioned my main character as a bit on the stocky side -- but then I decided only the rich would have been stocky by January of 1817.

    The New England states were especially hard hit. Many historians credit the Year Without a Summer with propelling westward expansion since many families left New England for the Northwest Territory afterward.

  5. It takes place in spring and summer of 1817, but would be interesting to add in a crop shortage. It could have an effect in a number of ways.

  6. Interesting post. I knew a bit about this as my current wip is set in England in 1817 (when people were still suffering from the previous year's poor harvest, shortages, etc) but your post rounded out some information for me. Imagine eating moss, oh! And around the world people still suffer in much the same way. It's heartbreaking.

  7. Susie, I got to thinking -- there were food riots not that long ago. Egypt was one country, I believe. Can't remember the others.

    Glad you found something useful in the post!

  8. Very interesting, CJ. I vaguely remember reading about this last year. I think it's a great aspect for you, Dina, and Susie to add to your current manuscripts.

    We didn't have summer last year. Or spring, really. We had a few days one week that were sunny and warm, but mostly it was gray and cloudy all last summer. We've had more sun this spring than we did all of last year and I'm happy.

  9. Great post, CJ. I didn't know about this because I tend to concentrate on the latter part of the 19th century. When I first saw your title though, I thought you were talking about last summer. Ha.

    As for positive effects, some places in Europe would've had great crops for years - as long as their topsoil hadn't washed away.

    I imagine the food shortages would've helped governments iniatiate some kind of food preservtion system for the future, but the way politicians are, that's iffy.

    Thanks for the info.


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