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Notes & Lines discusses the intersection of math, science, and technology with performing and visual arts. Topics include bizarre instruments, technically-minded musicians, and cross-pollination of science and art.

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Snow in June, Frost in July, Ice in August

Posted May 09, 2016 10:32 AM by Hannes

This coming summer marks the 200th anniversary of one of the most severe weather anomalies in modern history. The Year Without a Summer, as it's now commonly known, wreaked havoc on much of the Northern Hemisphere. In upstate New York and New England, in the vicinity of CR4 headquarters, snow fell in June, frosts were common from May through August, and temperatures sometimes swung violently between normal summer highs of 90° F or more to near-freezing in a matter of hours.

The climatic conditions of 1816 also resulted in unseasonably low temperatures and heavy rains as far east as China. In Europe famine was widespread and riots, looting, arson and demonstrations were common occurrences. Throughout the hemisphere, farming became nearly impossible, and grain prices increased exponentially. In an age when subsistence farming was the norm and commoners worked their hands to the bone to feed their families, crop failures often meant the possibility for starvation.

Contemporary observers were almost completely perplexed as to the disappearance of the summer of 1816, but scientists now believe it was the result of a few interrelated factors. The most significant of these was the April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Tambora was likely the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history, with a column height of over 26 miles and a tephra volume of over 38 cubic miles. Over 70,000 Indonesians were killed following the blast. The enormous amount of volcanic ash that spewed into the atmosphere reflected large quantities of sunlight and lowered Northern Hemisphere temperatures.

To compound the effects of the ash, modern scientists also believe that solar magnetic activity was at a historic low in 1816, the midpoint of a 25-year solar period known as the Dalton Minimum. By studying the presence of carbon-14 in tree rings, solar astronomers have concluded that sunspot activity was abnormally low, reducing the transmission of solar radiation to Earth. Ironically, the Tambora eruption often caused a dry fog to settle over the Northern Hemisphere, producing a reddened and dimmed Sun and causing sunspots to become visible to the naked eye. With little knowledge of the eruption, 19th-century Americans and Europeans often blamed the red, spotty Sun alone for the abnormal weather conditions, while in reality Tambora's ash played a much more significant role.

A third less-studied factor is the possibility of a solar inertial shift. These shifts, occurring every 180 years or so due to the gravitational pull of the largest planets in the Solar System, cause the Sun to wobble on its axis and possibly affect Earth's climate. Scientists point to three of these shifts--in 1632, 1811, and 1990--that correspond to major climatic events: the solar Maunder Minimum from 1645-1715, the Dalton Minimum discussed above, and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo with corresponding global cooling in 1991. This association remains largely hypothetical, however.

The Year Without a Summer produced some interesting and long-lasting cultural effects. Thousands left the American Northeast and settled in the Midwest to escape the frigid summer; Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith was forced move from Vermont and settle in Western New York, the first in a series of events that culminated in his writing The Book of Mormon. German inventor Karl Drais may have invited the Laufmaschine, the predecessor of the bicycle, in 1818 in response to the shortage of horses caused by the 1816 crop failure.

That summer may have influenced contemporary art as well. The high concentrations of tephra in the atmosphere led to spectacular yellow and red sunsets, which were captured by J.M.W. Turner's paintings of the 1820s. (If you've ever wondered about the vivid red sky in the more widely known painting The Scream, some modern scholars believe Edvard Munch may have viewed a similarly vivid sunset as a result of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.) Trapped inside their Swiss villa due to the excessive rains in June 1816, a group of English writers on holiday passed the time by seeing who could write the most frightening ghost story. Mary Shelley came up with the now-famous Frankenstein which she would finish and publish in 1818, while Lord Byron's unfinished fragment The Burial inspired John William Polidori to write The Vampyre in 1819, effectively launching the still-healthy field of romantic vampire fiction.

The advancement of agricultural technology more or less ensures that we'll never have a comparable subsistence crisis to that of 1816, despite any further severe weather anomalies. Even so, it's chilling to examine that year's events and attitudes toward them, as expressed by surviving journals and works of art.

Image credits: NOAA | Public domain

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#1

Re: Snow in June, Frost in July, Ice in August

05/09/2016 9:09 PM

So everybody complains about the weather, but nobody knows anything about it....is that what yer sayin'?

You need to spend more time on the beach....

Looks like another sunny day with light southerly breezes and moderate temperatures....

Beach happy....

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Re: Snow in June, Frost in July, Ice in August

05/10/2016 2:56 AM

Solar,

Your G/F?.

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Re: Snow in June, Frost in July, Ice in August

05/10/2016 11:04 AM

Haha don't I wish.....

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#3

Re: Snow in June, Frost in July, Ice in August

05/10/2016 8:10 AM

That year certainly made an impression on folks in rural agricultural areas. I remember my Grandmother talking about it, and she wasn't born until 1900. She told me she had heard the story from her grand parents, who, I must assume, had heard it from theirs. She had no idea when it happened, but she knew the details of it. The snow in June was mentioned, dull sun, as well as total crop failure. Without this post, who talks about it today?

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Re: Snow in June, Frost in July, Ice in August

05/10/2016 10:39 AM

I've always found the story fascinating, and I expect it to get more coverage and traction this summer. A lot of magazines covered the 1816 summer last year around the 200th anniversary of the Tambora eruption.

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Re: Snow in June, Frost in July, Ice in August

05/10/2016 7:53 PM

Sounds like a pretty much normal summer here in some years.

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Re: Snow in June, Frost in July, Ice in August

05/13/2016 7:46 AM

Here is Aus, it looks like we're heading into "The winter that never was."

Normally have had frosts for over a month by now, but still no mornings below 9DegC and daytime temps around 26.

Trees are still flowering and bees making honey.

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