Weird History
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1816 Was Known As 'The Year Without A Summer' - Here's What Happened

Updated October 17, 2019 349.9k views13 items

The early 1800s proved to be an interesting time. This period experienced one of the earliest recorded instances of global climate change. In addition, the War of 1812 ended; Napoleon Bonaparte lost at Waterloo; and Otto von Bismarck was born. The year 1816, in particular, stands out as being almost as tragic as 536 CE.

Known as the "Year Without a Summer," 1816 negatively impacted the entire world, from the most poverty-stricken farmer in China to Thomas Jefferson. In 1815, Mount Tambora erupted, and its aftermath spurred droughts, crop failure, and endless winter.

The volcanic activity altered weather systems, triggered disease, and destabilized regimes. Historians struggle to cite a specific number of lives that were lost during the period, but at least 10 million people passed - many experienced a weather-induced cholera epidemic. The Year Without a Summer also profoundly impacted culture and art in the 19th century, inspiring Gothic and Romantic masterpieces.

The Mount Tambora volcanic eruption changed the course of history.

  • Photo: National Library of Wales / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Millions Succumbed To A Cholera Epidemic That Originated In Bengal

    The Mount Tambora event led to a new strain of cholera. This form of it had mutated due to the Bay of Bengal's altered weather patterns and the chemical changes in the soil. The population couldn't fight the microbe that targeted the immune system, and the disease quickly traveled all over Asia.

    By the century's end, the entire world felt cholera's effects. It claimed the lives of millions. 

  • Photo: Joseph Louis Hippolyte Bellangé / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Napoleonic Wars Left Europe Ill-Prepared For Famine

    At the height of his power, Napoleon Bonaparte seemed unstoppable. He cut a swath across Europe and held brief dominion over most of the continent. But the Mount Tambora eruption proved more disruptive than Bonaparte. 

    The eruption caused ash, rain, and freezing temperatures to circulate through Europe. Hardly anyone was prepared for these effects, and food stores were low.

    Many European nations had to rely on American imports to avoid hunger, as strife had disrupted agricultural processes.

  • Sulfate Disrupted Monsoons In South Asia For Three Consecutive Years

    While the eruption affected people globally, the most dramatic consequences occurred closer to the volcano. For instance, the annual Indian monsoons slowed down, leading to a dizzying array of effects like the cholera epidemic that started in Bengal.

    Mount Tambora also emitted a substantial amount of sulfate. Historian Gillen D'Arcy Wood explained its impact:

    The massive load of sulfate gases Tambora injected into the stratosphere produced an aerial dust cloud consisting of up to 100 cubic kilometers of debris. This great sun-obscuring plume then circled the earth at the equator in a matter of weeks before drifting pole-ward, playing havoc with the world's major weather systems for almost three years.

  • Photo: Various / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Change In Climate Kickstarted The Age Of Arctic Exploration

    The volcano failed to effect a massive drop in temperature in the Arctic. In fact, a strange conflux ended up forcing warm winds northward. Arctic ice melted and formed new pathways into the uncharted frozen landscape.

    The British Navy, hoping to find a northern passage, prepared multiple Arctic expeditions. The first of these expeditions, launched in 1818 and headed by Captain John Ross, arrived in the north only to find that weather patterns had stabilized. The path disappeared.

    However, in the following years, British explorers and other nations continued to launch Arctic journeys.