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The Year Without a Summer, and How It Spawned Frankenstein

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The summer of 1816 brought unseasonably cold temperatures to the Northeastern United States, Canada, and Europe. Damaged crops and impeded trade caused widespread famine, leading to skyrocketing food prices, and the deaths of thousands.

What caused this deadly cold snap? And how exactly did this terrible time give us both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the invention of the bicycle? Let's take a look at the strange facts of the Year Without a Summer.


Top image by mondojohn on deviantART.

Record lows & snows in June, July, and August

The Summer of 1816 is known for abnormally low temperatures across parts of North America and Europe, along with wild temperature swings that killed many crops. A foot of snow fell on Quebec in June of 1816, with snow also falling in Maine and New York in the same month. The chill extended deep into the summer, as frost covered the ground of New York, New Hampshire, and Maine well into mid-August.


The unseasonably cold weather extended as far south as Savannah, Georgia, with a high temperature of 46° F (7.8° C) recorded on Independence Day of 1816. Ice covered lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania well into August, disrupting transport of goods and materials from the Southeastern United States.

Brown, yellow, and red snow falling in Hungary and Italy in earlier in the year led to suspicion of volcanic activity as the main suspect behind the disappearance of the Summer of 1816. And scientists now believe there was more than a little truth to this suspicion.

The Reason for the Season
The absence of the Summer of 1816 is now tied to the April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano within a chain of islands in Indonesia. The eruption rated a category 7 on the Volcano Explosivity Index - to put the eruption in perspective, the 1980 Mount St. Helens' eruption rated a category 5, and the VEI scale only goes to 8.


Several other strong volcanic eruptions took place in the four previous years, including four separate VEI category 4 eruptions between 1812 and 1814. These five eruptions tossed a significant amount of ash into the atmosphere – particulates causing light from the sun to bounce back and decrease the temperature of parts of the Earth.

People 4,000 kilometers away heard the eruption of Mount Tambora, with the areas close to 1000 kilometers away covered in a centimeter of ash. Close to 12,000 people, nearly the entire population of the Tambora province, died immediately after the explosion due to lava flows, tsunamis, and rocks sent flying through the sky.


Famine and skyrocketing food prices
The unusual temperatures, lack of vegetation, and transport problems led to a famine spanning the Northern Hemisphere, indirectly killing an estimated 80,000 people. Prices for staple foods like corn and grain skyrocketed, while oats escalated to eight times their normal price, leading to a sell off of livestock in the Fall of 1816. Food prices stayed at an elevated rate until a recovery in the Summer of 1817. Resourceful individuals in Germany resorted to using straw and sawdust to make bread and survive the Summer and following Fall.


Creativity abounds!
An inability to feed livestock and the high price of oats (the preferred food of horses!) led Karl Drais, a German inventor, to create a method of horseless transportation, the laufmaschine. Drais' "running machine" is a prototype for the modern bicycle that lacks pedals and relies on the rider to start off with a trot and then ride once sufficient speed is obtained.


The lack of food in the Northeastern United States led to the migration of thousands to the Midwestern United States, leading to the cultivation of a fertile area North America now relies upon for a substantial amount of its food, and beginning the Western Expansion of the country.


Literature also benefited alongside agriculture and transportation, with the dreary Summer of 1816 blamed for the conditions in Switzerland. These conditions led Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and John William Polidori to spend much of a summer vacation indoors, entertaining each other with a contest to write the scariest story of all. The unseasonal weather conditions, along with this dare, led to the creation of Shelley's Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus — as well as Polidori's novella The Vampyre, probably the first prominent piece of vampiric fiction, and Byron's long-form poem, The Darkness.

An unusual sequence of events
The large amount of volcanic debris swirling around in the air during the year 1816 yielded phenomenal agricultural damage and mass migrations. Human ingenuity prevailed as well, giving insight as to what might just occur if humanity is faced with an atmosphere shielding event like an asteroid collision, another series of strong volcanic eruptions, or a nuclear winter.


Images from Google Maps, the Kurpfälzisches Museum, and NASA. Sources linked within the article.