THE COLDEST SUMMER

26Apr07

marigold_snowSure, it’s been cool so far this summer. The average daily high temperature for July has been 77.6, almost 4 degrees below the normal average high of 81.4. The average mean temperature for the Boston area has been 3 degrees below normal.

You think that’s bad? Try the New England summer of 1816. That’s the year known as “The Year There Was No Summer.” Snow fell in Massachusetts on June 7. People referred to 1816 as “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.”

You can take heart from knowing that this summer is nothing compared to what South Reading residents had to put up with in 1816. So stop your whining, put on another sweatshirt and listen to how good you have it.

A comprehensive history and analysis of that chilly summer of 1816, written by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, can be found at The Weather Doctor. According to Dr. Heidorn, the winter of 1815-16 was near normal, offering no hint of what was to come. The first indication that something was amiss with the weather came when the usually wet New England spring produced scant rain.

Dr. Heidorn quotes Thomas Robbins, living in East Windsor Connecticut in 1816. Due to the cold and drought, “the vegetation does not seem to advance at all,” Robbins wrote in his diary. (Few people had blogs in those days. Those inclined to record their every thought were reduced to writing with a quill pen in blank books called “diaries” or “journals.”)

A brief warm and rainy period toward the end of May gave New Englanders reason to be hopeful that the cool, dry spring had been just a minor weather fluke. Then, on May 29, strong northwesterly winds drew frigid arctic air into the northeast. David Thomas wrote from Erie, Pennsylvania that “ice covered the water 1/4 inch thick.”

With the arrival of June, more seasonable temperatures returned, offering renewed hope for threatened crops. But the overnight of June 5-6 crushed any optimism, as the temperature again plummeted. The 7 a.m. temperature at Williamstown, Massachusetts was 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Not so bad, except that it was also the high temperature for the day.

And that was only the beginning.

On June 7, Waltham, Massachusetts reported a morning temperature of 35 degrees. From Vermont came reports of 5-6 inches of snow with drifts over a foot deep. There are reliable accounts of snow falling in Salem, Massachusetts to as far south as Waltham.

The cold was so intense that birds fell dead in the fields, and newly shorn sheep died of exposure. On June 9, frost was reported in Worcester and on June 10 in East Windsor, Connecticut. The sunrise temperature at Waltham on June 10 was 33 degrees.

Then the arctic air mass passed and for the rest of June, temperatures around the region again reverted to seasonable levels.

But July was just around the corner.

“The arrival of a cold front during July more often than not is a welcomed event in New England,” Dr. Heidorn notes in his web essay. But when the wind shifted to the northwest on July 6 and temperatures began to fall, memories of previous weather events doubtless had New Englanders worried.

With good reason.

While not as severe as the previous weather events, temperatures in the 40 degree range were reported as far south as Hartford and New Haven. It was worse up north. The frost in Franconia, New Hampshire on July 9 killed the entire bean crop. The damage that the cold, dry summer had wrought on the agrarian society led to legitimate fears of famine in the region.

Then the cold ended and more normal temperatures for the rest of July fed hope that something could be salvaged of the summer crops. But August would squash those hopes once and for all.

Frost in northern New England laid waste to what was left of that corn crop on August 13 and 14. A week later, there was frost in Keene and in Chester, New Hampshire. It was cold enough in Middlesex County to destroy the corn in low-lying areas. Another frost hit central New England on August 28. The next morning, Williamstown, Massachusetts recorded a temperature of 37 degrees.

And then it was Labor Day weekend, everybody had a cookout and the summer was over. So what ruined the summer of 1816? Well, for once it wasn’t the Red Sox.

“The most likely cause was volcanic influences,” Dr. Heidorn writes. Some of the largest eruptions in recorded history occurred in the years just prior to 1816. The theory holds that volcanic dust trapped high in the atmosphere led to increased reflection of solar radiation away from earth.

I don’t know about you, but I think I feel warmer already.

[This column originally appeared in the July 15, 2004 Wakefield Daily Item.]

Advertisements


No Responses Yet to “THE COLDEST SUMMER”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: