It’s the 200th anniversary of Maine’s epically cold “year without a summer.”These days we might worry about winters growing too warm, but 200 years ago Mainers faced the opposite problem: a frigid summer. In late May, a Brunswick weather station measured the mercury at 25 degrees. Farmers across what would become Maine (still four years from statehood in 1816) fretted about crops while newspapers reported weather anomalies elsewhere: a spring blizzard destroying southern Ohio’s peach blossoms, snow inundating upstate New York. In Maine’s 19th-century subsistence economy, a disrupted growing season could quickly morph into an existential threat.
In June, the temperature in Portland suddenly plummeted from 84 to 34 degrees. In Bangor, the Weekly Register reported 2 inches of snow falling in “large, beautiful flakes.” Madawaska got 9. In Hallowell, snow fell for three days. A quarter-inch of ice formed on ponds; the Hallowell Gazette noted, “birds were so benumbed as to be taken by hand.”
In Europe, Portland’s Eastern Argus reported, “religious processions have been made to appease the heavens. People believe that something extraordinary has taken place in the air.” Some Mainers likewise feared the end of days. Others wondered if a relatively recent invention, Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod, had sapped the earth of its heat. Rounding out the list of suspects: witchcraft, earthquakes, solar eclipses, lunar eclipses, and Freemasons who had learned to manipulate the weather.
Wintry conditions persisted all summer. Frost formed on the Fourth of July. “August proved to be the worst month of all,” wrote an anonymous diarist from Fryeburg. “There was great privation and thousands of persons in this country would have perished but for the abundance of fish and wild game.” Snow continued through September. Crop failures triggered food shortages and a mass migration to the Midwest, dubbed “Ohio Fever.” (In Bangor, Ohio Street got its name because it provided the principal route out of town.)
“The year without a summer,” as 1816 would be remembered, took climatologists another 150 years to figure out, and the real cause had nothing to do with dark magic or lightning rods. Earth was still on the tail end of the Little Ice Age, a centuries-long dip in global temperatures. Then, in April 1815, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted more violently than had any volcano in 1,700 years, releasing massive amounts of ash into the atmosphere. A “volcanic winter” ensued, with sulfur dioxide from Tambora forming aerosols in the stratosphere, blocking solar radiation and causing extreme bouts of short-term climate change.
But science provided no solace to those who lived through that summer. A Boston reporter wrote from Jackman: “The fields are as bare of herbage as usually in the month of November, and the verdure of the Forest has the appearance of Fall. . . . What is to become of this country, it is impossible to divine.” — Rob Sneddon
Image courtesy of the New England Historical Society.