Those of us living in northerly climes expect frosty temperatures in the winter. The year 1816, however, was unique for the coldness of its summer, which saw unprecedented crop-killing frosts as late as August in the Midwest, New England, Asia and throughout Europe. What caused these unseasonable drops in global temperature? The authors of this history-and-meteorology-blending narrative describe how a massive Indonesian volcano named Tambora erupted in April 1815, killing about 90,000 people and spewing tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, profoundly altering global weather patterns.
William and Nicholas Klingaman (father and son) do fine work of describing both the short-term and the long-term impact of Tambora’s eruption, the largest in the past 2,000 years. “The darkness was so profound,” said a near-the-scene ship captain quoted by the authors, “[that] it was impossible to see your hand when held up close to the eye.” As this massive amount of ash contaminated the atmosphere and blocked the sun, it changed both weather and history, say the authors. (William is the historian, Nicholas the meteorologist.)
The cold weather destroyed crops, jolted the price of food and triggered bread riots across Europe. In France, riots forced an anxious King Louis XVIII to eliminate tariffs on imported wheat and grain. The authors also describe the weather-affected lives of the era’s great artists (Jane Austen, Lord Byron) and political figures (Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon). For instance, they cite letters from Jefferson to his friend John Adams in which the Virginian complains about how the summer’s cold weather was destroying his Monticello gardens.
Even in late August, the authors write, “[f]reezing temperatures returned … striking as far south as Kentucky and west to Ohio,” killing crops everywhere. In England, the government feared agitators might use the high cost of bread to spark revolution: “What terrified them more than anything,” the authors write, “was the threat of mass action orchestrated by radical reformers.”
History aside, meteorology is at the center of this narrative, making the book rough sledding for those who are not weather fanatics. In one typical passage, the authors explain that “the aerosol cloud from Tambora had strengthened the Arctic cyclonic vortex; by springtime it had begun to have the opposite effect on Atlantic pressure systems.” Readers who don’t know the difference between barometric pressure and convection might find “The Year Without Summer” inaccessibly academic, despite the best efforts of the authors to include the likes of Austen and Jefferson. The book isn’t quite good enough to cross over into a more popular readership, but those interested in the convergence of meteorology and history will find smooth sailing here.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance critic in Boston.