The year without a summer

Published 1:57 pm Wednesday, May 2, 2018

By Dr. Ray A. Gaskins

Professor Emeritus HSC

In August 1883 the eruption of Krakatoa, an island volcano in Indonesia, between Java and Sumatra, is said to have produced the loudest sound in recorded history. We know that it was heard 3,000 miles away, because the British mistook it for cannon fire and nearly started a war, but it was not heard in Farmville. However, there was an earlier eruption, even more powerful than Krakatoa, which was felt here.

Dr. Ray Gaskins

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When Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, west of Java, exploded on April 11, 1815, it was arguably the most powerful eruption since the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. The top 4,200 feet of the mountain was blasted skyward and the ash (100 times that of Mount St. Helens in 1980) plunged Southeast Asia into darkness, reduced direct sunlight over the rest of the world by more than 20 percent, produced multicolored snow in Europe in the winter of 1815, and was responsible for the deaths of more than 200,000 people. In 1816 its aftereffects were felt around the globe, including in Southside Virginia.

Since the world was still in the throes of The Little ice age (1300 – 1850), the global cooling in the aftermath of the Tambora eruption pushed us into the last great food crisis in the Western world, and 1816 became known as the “Year Without A Summer.” As people starved in Europe—food riots raged in England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Switzerland—those who could, left, which began the great American immigration. 

In America things were not much better. New York Harbor froze from “shore to shore” and the ice was so thick that thousands of people were able to safely walk from Manhattan to Staten Island. The Buffalo Gazette reported that Lake Erie froze in May, the month of June in New Haven, Connecticut, was the coldest on record, 2 feet of snow fell in New England in June and July, frozen birds fell out of the sky, and 75 percent of the corn crop was ruined. Those who could, moved west, which began the great American westward expansion. 

The town of Farmville was formed in 1798, but there was no local newspaper in 1816 (Farmville Chronicle (1832-48), Farmville Republican (1848-50), Farmville Journal (1850-69), Farmville Weekly News (1869-70), The New Commonwealth (1870-72), Farmville Commonwealth (1872-73), The Farmville Mercury (1873-81), Farmville Journal (1879-98), The Farmville Herald (1890-present), so we have to rely on other newspapers for a glimpse of what life was like here during 1816.

Frost was reported on Aug. 20 and 21, 1816, and temperatures ranged from as high as 95° F to near freezing within hours. On Sept. 13, 1816, Norfolk’s American Beacon reported that corn crops in Virginia would be off by one-half to two-thirds of normal because “the cold as well as the drought has [nipped] the buds of hope.” Crop failures hit the rich and poor alike. Thomas Jefferson, recently retired from the presidency and already in debt, sustained crop failures that nearly sent him into bankruptcy.

The tobacco crop took a hit too, but people were more worried about filling their stomachs than their corncob pipes. The price of oats, for example, rose from 12 cents a bushel in 1815 to 92 cents a bushel in 1816. Since the railroad would not reach Farmville until 1854, it was difficult to import food in quantities large enough to feed a hungry population. Longwood (1839) and Union Theological Seminary (1824) were not yet in existence, but there were certainly hungry students at Hampden-Sydney (1776).

Oddly enough, we can find no mention of the hardships endured during 1816 in any of the local history books, such as Burrell (1922), Wall (1935), Bradshaw (1955, 1976 & 1994), and Brinkley (1994). There is also no mention in the Hampden-Sydney College Board of Trustees Minutes. But the Year Without A Summer did not go unnoticed in Virginia. In 1816 the American Beacon lamented: “It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer. Easterly winds have prevailed for nearly three months past … the sun during that time has generally been obscured and the sky overcast with clouds; the air has been damp and uncomfortable, and frequently so chilling as to render the fireside a desirable retreat.”

From June 6-9, severe frost occurred from Canada to Virginia. Corn and other vegetables were killed to the ground, and in the highlands tree leaves withered and fell off. People dug out their winter clothes and built roaring fires while their newly shorn sheep froze to death. The Danville, Vermont, North Star reported: “On Saturday morning (June 8) the weather was more severe than it generally is in the winter.” Our sister states to the south did not fare much better. In Savannah, Georgia, on July 4, the high was 46° F. In 1816 people had no idea what was causing the bizarre weather. It wasn’t until decades later that the cause was found to be the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.

Still, apart from immigration to America and westward expansion, the “Year Without A Summer” had other bright spots. The bicycle was invented because it cost too much to feed horses. Mary Shelley stayed indoors and wrote Frankenstein because it was too cold to go outside.

NB: Mount Tambora had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 7 (VEI-7). No VEI-8 or super volcano has occurred in recorded history. The difference between the two is a factor of 10. The last super volcano occurred about 38,000 years ago and brought on the last ice age, which created a mantel of ice 1 mile thick across two-thirds of North America. This was ended by a warming period, much like that of today, which lasted until the Little ice age.