The Year Without a Summer (also known as the Poverty Year, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death) was 1816, in which severe summer climate abnormalities resulted in major food shortages. Much of the cause of this anomaly is blamed on the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora (located on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia) in April 1815.
Rated a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the Tambora eruption had ash falls as far away as Borneo, Sulawesi, Java, and the Maluku islands. Most who died from the eruption came from starvation and disease. 71,000+ people died. Some 12,000 killed from the explosion.
In Europe, people were still recovering from the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars. Food shortages were already prevalent. In the UK and France, food riots were common. Switzerland declared a national emergency because of famine. Abnormal rainfall swelled European rivers. 100,000 Irishmen perished from a combination of a famine and a major typhus epidemic.
In New England, the corn crop failed. Because of supply and demand, the cost of wheat and grains skyrocketed. In Hungary, the population experienced brown snow. Italy had red snow. Volcanic ash is believed to be the cause. The rice crop in China failed due to the summer’s low temperatures. Summer snowfalls occurred in several of China’s provinces. In tropical Taiwan, snow was also reported.
J. M. W. Turner celebrated the spectacular sunsets during this period, likely caused by high levels of ash. People have noted the yellow tinge that is predominant in his paintings, such as Chichester Canal circa 1828.
The crop failures of the “Year without a Summer” may have helped shape the settling of the “American Heartland,” as many thousands of people (particularly farm families who were wiped out by the event) departed New England for what is now western and central New York and the upper Midwest in search of a more profitable land.
Among those who left Vermont were the family of Joseph Smith. This move precipitated a series of events which culminated in the publication of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In July 1816 “incessant rainfall” during that “wet, ungenial summer” forced Mary Shelley, John William Polidori, Lord Byron and their friends to stay indoors for much of their Swiss holiday.
John William Polidori
They decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story, leading Shelley to write Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus and Polidori to write The Vampyre In addition, their host, Lord Byron was inspired to write a poem, “Darkness,” at the same time.
The events of April 1815 play a part in my novel The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy (released March 2012), which begins in July 1815, after Wellington vanquishes Napoleon at Waterloo. The Year Without Summer is often mentioned in the books in my Realm series, which take place between the years of 1815 and 1819.