by Derek Maroot -Founder of the Northeast Kingdom Weather website
Winter thus far across the North Country has been relatively easy for most—in fact, as I’m writing this in mid-January, it’s raining outside. The mild and dry winter has many wondering when winter will actually show up, but as we all know in the North Country, Mother Nature has her ways, and in 1816 winter literally lasted until autumn and still stands in the history books as “The Year without a Summer.”
“The Year without a Summer” is sometimes referred to as the “Poverty Year,” “The Starving Year,” and many jokingly called it “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” The weather during the year of 1816 was far from normal and to understand its impacts on Vermont, we need to remember that supermarkets didn’t exist with the luxury of produce from around the world. In those days food for the long winter was grown locally. Whether in your own garden, or on a farm, nearly every family grew something to put in their root cellars to survive the long winter.
For many, 1816 began like any other year with no indication of what was to come. Temperatures in January and February were somewhat mild with little snowfall. March and April remained dry, but temperatures began to run below average. Diaries describe the spring weather as a backward season with little precipitation.
On May 12th, the first of a series of unusually strong arctic fronts surged across the North Country with cold Canadian air producing hard frosts far into southern New England. While frost in northern New England is not all that uncommon in May, with the last freeze typically occurring between the second and third week of May in Newport and St. Johnsbury, it was the long duration as the cold temperatures continued with another hard freeze on the 18th that was unusual, with even snow being reported across Quebec on the 19th. By this time some farmers were becoming worried as hard frosts had prevented early spring planting. Despite this some went ahead and planted with hopes that it would be warmer when seedlings finally broke ground.
On May 26th a storm system brought welcome relief with rain and milder temperatures region wide. Optimism amongst farmers quickly sprung, but was then crushed by yet another strong cold air mass arriving on the 29th, with cold lasting through the end of May.
The early days of June brought warmer temperatures with May’s cold quickly fading into distant memory for most. Many farmers began sowing crops and preparing fields in an attempt to make up for such a late start, while an unusually strong storm system was forming to the West. On June 5th the strong storm system arrived across New England, beginning as rain. Temperatures began to plummet towards the freezing mark during the evening of the 5th and by the morning of the 6th, snow was recorded mixing with rain. Amazingly this weather was just a hint of what was to come. On June 7, a reinforcing shot of cold air arrived with snow developing across much of the region. Many reported 5 to 6 inches of snow across the North Country with even a foot of snow reported in Danville, Vermont. Snow squalls and cold temperatures continued through June 8. On June 11th high pressure slid off the Atlantic coast, returning warm southerly winds.
The Danville North Star (15 June 1816) under the headline “Melancholy Weather” best describes the weather of early June 1816:
Some account was given in last week’s issue of the unparalleled severity of the weather. It continued without any essential amelioration, from the 6th to the 10th instant—freezing as hard five nights in succession as it usually does in December…. Saturday morning the weather was more severe than it generally is during the storms of winter. It was indeed a gloomy and tedious period.
By now many farmers were becoming very concerned for the growing season as they witnessed chickens and sheep perish across Vermont while, ironically, the snow protected early crops such as corn from the frigid temperatures. Many farmers quickly planted their remaining crops realizing that they may not have enough time to mature before the fall frosts returned.
The remainder of June and early July brought a sense of relief as normal temperatures returned with even a heat wave lasting from the 22ndof June through the 24th. Temperatures soared to 99 degrees F. in Waltham, Massachusetts, on the 23rd. Optimism rose among farmers as warm temperatures helped crops catch up from lost growing time. However, on July 6, northwest winds signaled the arrival of yet another cold air mass with freezing temperatures settling as far south as Pennsylvania. The cold air settled across the North Country damaging replanted crops, while fears of famine began to sprout faster than the crops. Estimates for the hay crop were less than one third of expected, forcing a reduction in livestock that could be sustained through the winter of 1817. For the remainder of July, temperatures remained seasonable, with only rain being reported on the 17th, giving hope that the yield of grain would be strong and make up for some of the lost crops.
Unfortunately that hope quickly diminished with the arrival of August. Once again, a series of unusually strong cold fronts swept across New England, the first bringing frost to the North Country on August 13 and 14. The second wave of cold air brought strong thunderstorms with temperatures falling as much as 30 degrees in their wake. Crops of corn, which already had been replanted and were suffering from drought, were devastated with the arrival of a third cold snap in the final days of August as severe frost settled across Vermont and New Hampshire.
Seasonable temperatures returned for September, while precipitation remained well below normal. By mid-September, frost returned once again to the North Country bringing an official end to the dismal growing season. Only then the true scale of the terrible growing season was realized. Frost had killed nearly all of the corn in New England with only 10 percent of the normal crop being harvested of which only half of it was mature. Apple orchards also suffered greatly, in addition to the dismal hay crop, as farmers feared for their livestock. Vermonters were forced to buy corn from neighboring New Hampshire where more of it had matured. Many survived the winter of 1817 by eating hedgehogs, green nettles, clover tops, and grains that managed to survive the cold weather better than the corn and vegetables.
The unusual weather experienced during the summer of 1816 is believed to have been caused by the explosive eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia. Nearly on the other side of the world from Vermont, this volcanic eruption was one of the strongest on Earth, sending colossal amounts of ash into the upper atmosphere. In addition to the Tambora volcano, four other volcanic eruptions prior to 1816 had been emitting ash into the atmosphere. Scientists believe the combination of ash reflecting solar radiation and low sunspot activity on the sun brought about cooler temperatures worldwide because less sunlight passed through the atmosphere to warm the Earth’s surface. This would likely have created unusual temperature abnormalities in the oceans that play a large role in weather. While the exact causes of the unusual weather of 1816 may never be fully understood, it is clear that the “The Year without a Summer” was a testament to the toughness of Vermonters and New Englanders as a whole to survive our unique weather and the challenges that it can create.
Derek Maroot is a native of the Northeast Kingdom and a 2000 graduate of North Country Union High School in Newport. His passion for weather began at a young age and continues today as he gets to experience weather from the ground up as a professional pilot for Heritage Aviation out of Burlington, Vermont. He owns and remotely operates a weather station in Newport, Vermont, which provides real-time data to his website, Northeast Kingdom Weather, in addition to various organizations such as the National Weather Service and Weather Underground. Visit Northeast Kingdom Weather online at www.nekweather.net for real-time weather conditions, forecasts, and to view the North Country’s only live snow cam. Also, be sure to join Northeast Kingdom Weather on Facebook and stay up to date on our ever-changing weather.