The summer of 1816 was hardly a summer at all. In New England, in June, it snowed and stormed, followed by “a severe hard frost, with ice half an inch thick,” which killed beeches and apple trees and corn and clover. Swallows froze to death in the rafters of barns where they’d sought refuge from the cold. Newly-shorn sheep shivered in the fields. People wore mittens and found clothes left outside to dry stiff with ice. It snowed in Boston and Vermont and western New York. In New Jersey, Virginia, Kentucky, and South Carolina, there were summer frosts, threatening crops. Farmers were terrified over lost harvests. There was widespread drought, and the temperature swung wildly between chilly and unbearably hot. In Pennsylvania, hailstones the size of “hen’s eggs” rained from the sky. Dark spots appeared on the surface of the sun, which people said were shaped like a spider or a whale.
“Strange weather!” begins an article from May 1816, published in Lancaster, Penn. “Every body complains of the present strange weather, unnatural weather, unseasonable weather,” it goes on, listing everything off-kilter that had been noted: ice-covered valleys, snow-capped mountains, vegetation “stunted and withered.” “The oldest person here has no recollection of a like season,” a resident of Cape May, N.J. wrote in June.
Reports from Europe told of “strange weather” there too: yellow and red snow fell in Italy, there was flooding in France, heavy rain and cold temperatures in Ireland and Wales. The prolonged cold, damp weather triggered food shortages and typhus outbreaks, and then riots and protests. A woman in Paris committed suicide after hearing rumors that the sunspots were a sign of the end of the world. In London, beginning in the fall of 1815, sunsets blazed in uncommon shades of scarlet and deep purple. Twilights were luminous and streaked with banded shadows. A record of meteorological observations from the period recounts an evening where “a sheet of mixed cloud…was most beautifully kindled up…with flame color and orange on a purple ground.”
No one knew what was causing the freakish weather, but that didn’t stop people from speculating. Maybe it was caused by earthquakes in South America, or Northwesterly winds, or “fields of ice floating in the Atlantic.” Some blamed the sunspots. Were there “three immense volcanoes in the sun,” or was it all caused by “an unfortunate wandering comet”? Was there worse ahead—might the sunspots foretell of an “immense body” which would fall to earth “in a horrible crash”? In July, the Brattleborough Reporter attempted to explain the “fields of ice” theory, and ultimately concluded that the “wisest philosophers” would throw up their hands, “ready to exclaim with Elihu,” from the book of Job: “By the breath of God frost is given, and the breadth of the waters is restrained.” Dreary, miserable, mysterious 1816 would be remembered as “the year without summer.”
The year without summer didn’t arrive on a gust of God’s breath, it turned out, but as a direct consequence of an enormous volcanic eruption thousands of miles away in Indonesia. On the island of Sumbawa, Tambora erupted in 1815, spewing magma, ash, smoke, and sulfate aerosols, which entered the atmosphere and eventually affected the climate in North America and Europe. Thousands of people were killed in the eruption, and thousands more would die from famine and disease caused by global cooling. Tephra released in the eruption was responsible for the brilliant sunsets seen in London, and for the red haze some said made the sunspots easier to see, the sun’s glare dulled by fog. Later, scientists connected volcanic eruptions like Tambora’s with red- and yellow-tinted paintings produced in their wake, most famously J.M.W. Turner’s fiery landscapes, horizons smeared with tangerine and carmine and chrysanthemum, beauty born unwittingly of destruction.
Lord Byron’s “Darkness” and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were both written in the depths of 1816’s chill. “Darkness” describes a world without any brightness or camaraderie: “Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,/ And men forgot their passions in the dread/ Of this their desolation; and all hearts/ Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light.”
In the summer of 2021, we’ve had our own strange, apocalyptic weather: uncontrollable wildfires in Siberia, unprecedented flooding in Germany, raging heat waves in the Pacific Northwest—and brilliant sunsets, an effect of drifting pollution, all of it captured in images of huge plumes of smoke, choking the horizon, of alien red skies, of water, violent and then still, photographs and videos that loop collapse and devastation. Unlike in 1816, the cause is clear to us. We are not flailing witnesses, peering curiously at the surface of the sun, shaking our sinners’ fists at an angry God. We are not ignorant victims but (mostly) complicit participants. And yet our clarity and our instantaneous data and our three-thousand-page reports don’t make the consequences of what our species has wrought any less frightening to confront.
“Darkness” ends in visions of starvation and war and burning forests; it is a poem whose plot only worsens as it marches on, until the waves and tides and moon are gone, the winds and clouds “perish’d,” and Darkness is become the whole Universe. The poem’s power to unsettle isn’t only about this ominous, engulfing force but about what it does to people, how it makes them desperate and combative and grasping: “no love was left;/ All earth was but one thought—and that was death.”
Maybe it’s just my own “fearful hope,” that stubborn human folly, but reading Byron’s bleak lines—about a greedy, fruitless scramble for light—reminded me first of W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” written at another time of great fear, another moment of watching as a storm swept in that threatened to overwhelm the world. In that darkness, Auden wrote about the need to “show an affirming flame,” about the possibilities left to humanity when ruin hovers nearby. “Hunger allows no choice,” he wrote. “We must love one another or die.” ■