Tuesday, November 25, 2014

1816: An Adirondack Year Without Summer

Caldera_Mt_Tambora_Sumbawa_IndonesiaLast week’s cold snap, news reports about the Polar Vortex, and a November snowfall of historic proportions in Buffalo and Watertown has some folks teasing that they could use a little global warming about now. Adding to the concern is a recent book by John L. Casey, former space shuttle engineer and NASA consultant. Casey claims that it is solar activity, namely sunspot eruptions – and not carbon emissions – that trigger climate changes here on earth. The recent diminished solar activity, he claims, will cause the earth to rapidity grow colder. Casey’s book Dark Winter predicts the worst of the cooling cycle will hit in the late 2020s and a shortened growing season will trigger food riots around the world. His thesis is sure to trigger heated responses (sorry, couldn’t resist) from global climatologists around the world, many of which have been measuring the loss of ice at the poles and warming global temperatures.

All of this has reminded me of a time two hundred years ago when the Adirondacks were, at least for a while, unusually cold.

On April 10, 1815 Mount Tambora in Indonesia began a volcanic eruption that lasted six months. The top third of its 13,000 summit exploded into the air and more than 12 cubic miles of gases, dust and rock was thrust into the atmosphere. The volcanic ash was so massive that as it circulated around the world it dimmed the sunlight around the globe for years. The lack of sunlight cooled the earth’s surface and the following year became known as the “Year without Summer”.

During the normally warm and humid summer months it has been written that the wind blew steady from the north with blasts of snow and ice. Mothers knitted wooly warm mittens and socks of double thickness for their children. Cash-poor farmers who worked out the taxes they owed working on county roads had to wear gloves and greatcoats as they shoveled snow and repaired the frozen ruts in the dirt roads. Hearth fires were indispensable and seasoned firewood grew short in supply. In early June frosts were reported as far south as Connecticut and on June 6th snow was reported in Albany. July came in with winter ferocity. On Independence Day ice as thick as window glass formed throughout New England, New York and parts of Pennsylvania. Crops, which in some areas had struggled through May and June, soon gave up the ghost. And to the surprise of all, August proved the cruelest month. Icy fingers of blight and bane spread across the land.

Although 1816 was not the coldest year on record, the prolonged cold hit the northeastern United States during the summer growing season. Young crops withered under the cold and freezing temperatures. Massive crop failures triggered famines and commercial life – at the time based on an agrarian economy – came to a standstill. Life, always hard here in the Adirondacks, became that much harder.

The crop failures of 1816 caused one of the first major emigrations out of the Adirondacks. Farmer after farmer, thinking this was not an untypical summer weather in the Adirondacks, decided to abandon their hardscrabble farms and headed south and west with their families in search of areas that were warmer, had a longer growing season, and offered better soils.

It would be more than a century before anyone understood that the reason for the peculiar summer weather was a volcanic eruption half a world away.

Photo: Aerial view of the caldera of Mount Tambora, formed during the colossal 1815 eruption. Photo courtesy Wikimedia user JialiangGao.


Related Stories

Adirondack historian Glenn Pearsall is the author of Echoes in these Mountains (2008), When Men and Mountains Meet (2013), and the Adirondack novel, Leaves Torn Asunder (2016).
In 2000, Glenn Pearsall and his wife Carol established and funded the Glenn and Carol Pearsall Adirondack Foundation dedicated to improving the quality of life of year round residents of the Adirondack Park.

When not pursuing a passion for history and philanthropy, Pearsall is a senior partner and Portfolio Manager for a wealth management team in Glens Falls, NY. He and his wife Carol live near the base of Crane Mountain in Johnsburg.

2 Responses

  1. Charles Herr says:

    Great article. This event on a Pacific island also contributed to woes of an Adirondack tragic figure: Charles Frederick Herreshoff. From my history of the Herreshoff Manor in today’s Thendara: “By the spring of 1815, Aaron Thresher, a hand on his wife’s farm in Providence, had driven a quantity of merino sheep over six weeks to the Tract where they were sheltered in the shed. On the other side of world and unknown to many in North America, a volcano that year on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa [Mt Tambora is on this island] in the Pacific would cause the following year to be “the year without a summer”, damaging farming throughout the northeast, especially to Herreshoff’s 1816 crop.

    As Herreshoff planned, the Manor entered documented history in September 1815 when Herreshoff proudly informed Sarah that he had built the “very snugg fair house”. Workers had located lime stone so that, instead of clay, they could use it “to build our chimney and plaster the walls”. Historians describe the structure as a two story house with six rooms.

    Returning to the Tract from Rhode Island in June 1816, Herreshoff viewed the results of the weather-damaged harvest of 1816. His request to the family shipping firm for funds to start a nail factory would be denied. In the following year, Herreshoff began his final venture, an iron industry. A forge was built, expected to operate by November that year and using ore he discovered at two nearby locations. But this source required a lengthy and labor intensive process for separating the ore from the soil. Herreshoff built an iron ore separator, but in the end the venture failed and his request for funds from the Brown interests were refused. In one of his last letters to Francis, wrote: “you may rely upon it that if I fail, it will be like a man, in the last trench.” Relics of this forge are displayed prominently at Point Park in Old Forge, N.Y.
    – See more at: https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2014/04/the-herreshoff-manor-witness-to-tragedy.html#sthash.lFOOWlCr.dpuf

  2. Jim S. says:

    Interesting article, I am always surprised when people try to discredit global warming. One point I would like to make is that I think it is unnecessary to apologize for making a pun.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox