The Year Without a Summer

These few articles relate to the unusual weather of 1816, 1817 and 1818 which has since been attributed to volcanic activity in 1815. The effects were global but temporary. Initially the weather appears to have become warmer, after a couple of years it become cooler and then returned to unusual warmth.

It is also mentioned that the North Atlantic cooled in early 15th century, something Britons are aware of from the existence of orangeries in many older English estates, Hampton Court for example, but no indication of cause is noted or was known.

Sat 22nd August 1818

The Quarterly Gazette has been endeavouring to understand the weather of 1816 – ‘the year without a summer’ – and the results of recent exploration around Greenland and Baffin Bay:

In 1817 Lt Chappell published a narrative of a voyage in HMS Rosamund to the North West Passage. He mentions many things which he did not himself see but, overlooking that, he has some interesting observations on the state of the polar ice. Numerous navigators have commented on the large quantity of ice floating down into the north Atlantic recently.

The Norwegians and Danes established colonies on Greenland 400 years ago. The Danes were first in 983 AD but we have been hitherto unable to locate or visit their settlements as the eastern coast of Greenland has always been encased in ice. This cooling was apparent by very early in the 15th century when the Bishop of Greenland was travelling from Norway in 1406 to take-up his duties but could not land because of the ice. Since then we have been unable to communicate with the colonies on eastern Greenland.

In 1816 and 1817 many ships reported increased ice in the sea as far south as 40 degrees. In May – July 1817 Newfoundland was encircled by floating pack ice.

Jan Mayen’s Island is a navigational marker for the fishing fleet and, so far as we know, has always been completely encrusted with ice. In August 1817 the seal-hunters reported this island to be clear of ice. The east coast of Greenland was likewise found to be accessible to 80 degrees north through broken ice. It is a nice question why all this ice has broken away from Greenland to jeopardise shipping in the north Atlantic.

The change was contemporary with a magnetic variation. It is believed that Baffin Bay is one of the magnetic poles of this planet but how a variation in magnetism could cause the ice to break-off is unknown.

The main areas of interest are:

  • whether this large movement of ice affects our climate,
  • whether we will at last have a chance to locate and examine the long lost colonies on Greenland, and
  • the facility that ice removal offers to better establish the geography of the area generally.

The old records of Iceland reveal that place was once forested although today there are only a handful of stunted birches. It is still common to find logs in the valley bogs. It appears that Iceland’s weather has become colder. There is similar evidence in Switzerland that some icebound places were formerly tree’d.

In 1816 the maize (sweet corn) crop of America, from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, did not ripen. No living inhabitant could remember it happening previously. It was during this occurrence that ice floes littered the sea offshore as far south as New York. This all appears related to the changed summer weather we have experienced in 1816 and 1817. The Royal Society’s meteorological records for average temperatures of May – August 1805 – 1807 when compared with 1815 – 1817 show the highest temperatures (at midday) have become lower but the average temperatures have become higher. Here are the figures for 1805 and 1815:

 

May

June

July

August

1805-7 hottest

72

75

72

79

average temp

52

58

62

65

1815-17 hottest

68

70

72

69

average temp

58

62

63

64

We accordingly attribute the cold summers of 1816 and 1817 to the presence of pack ice throughout the north Atlantic which coldness was brought to our British Isles by westerly winds. The same effect prevented the grapes ripening along the Meuse from Namur to Liege in 1817, an unprecedented event.[1]

Sat 12th September 1818

North Atlantic shipping reports a continuation of the huge ice flows and bergs that endangered navigation last year. The visible parts are estimated at 400 – 600 feet high. Some are measured in miles. The Grand Turk arrived at Derry from New York and reported spending two days getting clear of them – they must extend some 400 miles across the ocean.

A six-mile long iceberg has run up on the island of Fowla in the Shetlands. Its twice the area of the island and the residents are anxious.

Sat 7th November 1818

Two swarms of bees were seen on a farm in Sandilandgut, Milton Estate, Carluke in Scotland on 23rd May. Bees at this latitude invariably swarm at the end of June – these are over a month early and appear to be responding to the unusual warmth of the weather. Its another indication of our changing climate.

Sat 20th March 1819

Savannah, 16th October 1818 – the last of the winter frosts this year was on 23rd April; the first of next year’s winter’s frosts was on 5th October. We have had five months growing season for our agricultural produce. No-one can remember anything like it. The cotton crop will be half of last year’s and scarcely any grain will be produced.

Sat 10th April 1819

The average price of wheat during the six weeks to mid-November was 80/2d a bushel thus triggering the legislative permission to import.

Sat 17th April 1819

Liverpool Mercury, 27th November – Winter has not started yet. Our vegetables do not seem to know which season it is – green peas were recently harvested at Shipton Mallet; strawberries in Galloway; artichokes in Ormiston and one local garden had polyanthus, carnations, violets, marigolds, wallflowers, stock and sweet peas all flowering in the open air on 20th November.

In Konigsburg this year the farmers are saying ‘there is no truth in the land’.

Sat 1st May 1819

Bath News, 3rd December – Capt Sir John Ross has returned from Baffin’s Bay with a rum tale – he saw mile after mile of red snow. He did not see it falling. It was not uniformly coloured but more streaky. Where the snow had melted it took on a deeper hue like port wine. This melted snow contains a sediment which is being analysed.

Sat 22nd May 1819

Demerara Gazette, 28th October – Large icebergs were reported to be visible from the Bahamas Islands on 24th October 1818.

Sat 5th June 1819

Reports from Sweden and Norway reveal no frost or snow has occurred in the major towns at end January 1819. Primroses are in bloom and gooseberry bushes are sprouting up to the 59th degree of latitude.

The absence of ice has stopped the transportation of iron ore from the Swedish mines, which is carried on ice roads. It is the same in Russia where the roads have all turned to deep slush.

Sat 6th November 1819

Baghdad, 25th August 1819 – Mesopotamia is experiencing the hottest summer in the recollection of living men. It has been 120ºF in the coolest parts of houses.

At the beginning of the month there was an unseasonable storm, again an event without known precedent, and that rain on the scorched earth raised a cloud of steam that overwhelmed many people.

People in the country or on caravans could not escape and the carnage has been considerable.

After the storm, the river rose 2 metres and the water assumed a red colour with an offensive taste.

Most of the people went to the mosques and there was genuine widespread fear that the end of the world was at hand.

Sat 3rd March 1821

Winchester Journal – Exploration of the northwest passage appears to have confirmed it exists, according to information received at Hull. The whaler Cumbrian (Johnson) sailed 80 miles up Lancaster Sound and found both the wind and current against him. At that point the channel was 20 miles wide. Johnson could see a further 20 miles ahead and detected no trace of obstruction, only clear sea.

Johnson left the Sound on 23rd August and exited the Straits on 3rd September. On the way down he met the Friendship (Thomas Bell) which had attained a latitude of 80 degrees 20 minutes – further than Capt Ross got. The Friendship, and another Hull ship True Love, were after whales.

Sat 21st April 1821

HMS Hecla (Parry) rounded Baffin island in the summer of 1819 and sailed west at 74ºN  to Melville Island but was unable during the following summer to proceed beyond 112ºW because of impenetrable sea-ice. Nevertheless Parry believes he has found the NW Passage.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This and the subsequent reports of changed weather (but not the magnetic variation) have since been linked with the explosive eruption of Tambora volcano on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia in April 1815.

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