The Year Without a Summer

I recently spent a week in Cornwall with friends.

Like the rest of Britain we had atrocious weather: at times there were ‘January storms’; at times it was sunny enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt.

We adapted by changing our clothing, and joked about getting sunburn and frostbite (almost) in the same week.

But the consequences of an only slightly more extreme weather pattern are no laughing matter. The year of 1816 is known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’.

In the previous year, 1815, all eyes had been on Waterloo, as Wellington and his allies narrowly managed to defeat Napoleon. Unwatched in far-off Indonesia meanwhile, Mount Tambora capped a series of volcanic eruptions with the largest explosion seen for 1,300 years.

The result, a year later, was a volcanic winter.

The effect on weather in north America and Europe was remarkable. Frost in May killed many of the crops that had been planted. Second sowings died in June, killed by snow. Temperatures swung rapidly, from near freezing to 35ºC, within just a few hours.

It sounds a bit like Cornwall really.

We can change our clothes to cope. But summer crops have cell walls that rupture in the slightest frost. After the crop failures in 1816, the price of oats for example went up more than seven times. Western Europe experienced the worst famine of the nineteenth century, as well as riots, arson, looting, and a typhus epidemic (brought on by the starvation). Civilisation, as they say, is only three meals deep.

Similarities and differences to what we are facing with climate change?

  • Similarities between then and now are that both climate change and the Mount Tambora eruption seem ‘far away’. And there was, and is, a delay between the ‘initiating event’ (volcanic eruption / emission of carbon dioxide) and the resulting change in global temperatures.
  • A difference is that transport infrastructures were less well developed then than they are now, so that crop failure in one area could not be overcome by shipping in food from another area.
  • And another difference is that then average global temperatures fell by only 0.4–0.7 °C, less than one degree. Whereas now we are on track for average global temperatures rises of six degrees by the end of the century.


The conclusion for me is that addressing climate change is our number one priority.

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