In 1816, summer didnít come to people in parts of Europe and North America. Much of New
England witnessed snow in June and frosts the entire year. Low temperatures were
recorded from Virginia to Canada, earning the year a nickname: Eighteen hundred and
Froze to Death. The first chill arrived on June 5 and 6. At noon the temperature in
Williamstown, Massachusetts (USA) was 83 degrees. The next morning, it was 45 degrees
and falling. In Plymouth, Connecticut (USA), it snowed for an hour on June 7. Killing
frosts occurred for several days as far south as Virginia. Leaves withered, birds froze,
and sheep perished. By June 11, most of the corn in New England had shriveled and died.
Good weather returned for a while, giving farmers enough time to replant their fields.
But just as the new sprouts began to thrive, a second cold wave arrived in July. Corn,
beans, cucumbers, and squash were ruined. Desperate, the farmers began talking worriedly
of famine. Their worst fears were realized that year, but widespread shortages were
averted by a brief warming period that allowed hardier grains like rye and wheat the
survive. On August 20, temperatures plummeted again, destroying all remaining crops.
A month later, on September 27, another killing frost ended all hopes for a mild Indian
In northern Europe, the 1816 summer was cool and wet. Food production was below normal.
In Switzerland, the normally healthy grain market faltered, and farmers were forced to
kill livestock because no grain was available for feed.
Some scientists blame the cold summer on sunspot activity. One investigator developed a
theory that the North Atlantic had been overrun by arctic ice floes. Others believed
that widespread use of lightning rods, invented in the 1700s by Benjamin Franklin, had
unbalanced the natural flow of warming electrical currents.
Finally, in 1913, United States Weather Bureau scientist William Humphreys found a
link between the frozen summer and a series of volcanic eruptions, especially the one
at Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). After blowing almost 200
billion tons of ash into the atmosphere, the explosion created a haze of dust adequate
enough to block a large portion of the sunís rays. Benjamin Franklin had made a similar
speculation about the relationship between atmospheric dust and weather more than thirty
years before the Mount Tambora eruption.