Lessons Learned from the Year Without a Summer: A Call for Studying Climate Persistence

Emma C. Moesswilde
Oil painting of a vibrant sunset in shades or orange, yellow, and brown.

Due to volcanic ejecta in the atmosphere, sunsets in the aftermath of Tambora’s eruption appeared particularly vibrant, as in this painting by Turner. J. M. W. Turner, “Sunset N01876,” 1830–1835, National Gallery.

In the spring of 1816, the weather in New England turned suddenly chilly. The distant volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 had expelled sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere in such quantity that they reduced the amount of solar energy that could reach Earth’s surface. In combination with low solar activity, these particles resulting in cooler temperatures not just in Indonesia, but across the globe as these particles circulated in the atmosphere.[1] Accounts of the resulting climatic extreme written in the two centuries since the eruption have detailed the adverse impacts of such “backward” weather, especially for rural communities and ecosystems. Alongside such effects, though, run currents of human persistence in the face of some of the most remarkable climate patterns in the past several centuries. Framing accounts of the “Year Without a Summer” with an eye to such persistence can illuminate new connections between rural communities and climate in the past as well as the present and future.

In Maine in 1816, rather than a slowly greening landscape, snow and then ice thickened on the ground. Freezing temperatures and a dry climate persisted throughout the summer.[2] Corn crops were stunted in the icy weather and dry climate, and as the summer wore on many farmers harvested early to save what they could. The lack of corn meant a lack of food as well as a loss of profit for many farming families.[3] Scarcity—and in some cases near-starvation—was widespread. Coastal farmers and those with access to marine resources relied more than ever on fish, such as abundant mackerel, when other protein sources were minimally available.[4] Some wealthier Mainers or those with more successful harvests worked to supply their neighbors with additional corn, but for many there was no alternative but to leave their frozen fields and head west.[5]

Three colorful graphs of surface temperature

Surface temperature anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere, 1795–1830, based on data for solar and volcanic forcing. Graph reproduced under a Creative Commons license from Shih-Wei Fang et al., “On the Additivity of Climate Responses to the Volcanic and Solar Forcing in the Early 19th Century,” Earth System Dynamics 13 (Nov. 7, 2022), 1535–55, here 1550 fig. 12.

The “Ohio Fever”—or a desire to head west to the supposed mild, fertile plains of the Ohio Valley – set in along with the cold. Thousands of families left Maine in the wake of what came to be called “the year Eighteen Hundred and Starved to Death,” expanding the reach of settler-colonial agriculture.[6] Yet many others persisted through a scanty harvest and another chilly winter to be rewarded by warmth in July of 1817 and a bumper harvest in the fall. Such abundance was enough to persuade enough folks to stay and continue farming the land, even changing their cultivation strategies to include more cold-resistant crops, like rutabagas, in case of another chilly year.[7]

What John Post called the “last great subsistence crisis in the Western world” has persisted in popular New England memory.[8] A historically minded headline from a Belfast, Maine newspaper in the chilly winter of 1905 proclaimed that “It Was Cold in 1816” and encouraged its readers to “read this [article] and cheer up.”[9] Just as responses to the multifold consequences of the “Year Without a Summer” were varied, creative, and flexible, so too have been the afterlives of the climatic disruption in rural New England communities.

So, what does this history—rich in the textual primary sources, robust climate proxy data, and cultural capital which are often regarded as making a “good story”—offer to scholars and readers hungry for connections to the present climate crisis? My research on rural communities, agricultural practice, and seasonal climate change prioritizes small-scale regional studies of rural practitioners living with climate change and its rhythmic—or arrhythmic—relationships to rural landscapes and livelihoods. This perspective emphasizes quotidian histories of rural communities whose experiences of and responses to climate change were far more complex than changing points on a price series graph or stages in a climate model.[10] Such a perspective also moves beyond the oft-employed emphasis on a particular climate event as a catalyst for disaster, collapse, or widespread change and towards a focus on continuity and lived experience through periods of climate change.[11]

Black and white photo if a bare tree above a snowy field with streaky clouds in the background.

Snow-covered hayfield, Maine, 2021. Photo by author.

Today, as populations live with the ever-growing impacts of the climate crisis, climate history research and communication has increasingly worked to highlight the long historical context for adaptation, mitigation, and action with the hope of informing public perceptions and policy.[12] When examined on a regional and seasonal scale, the example of the “Year Without a Summer” and its afterlives can highlight the complex, multifaceted heritages of climate adaptation. As rural communities in Maine face seasonal disruptions today and contemplate an uncertain future, these heritages can help to inform and contextualize not just climate action, but also the potential for flexible, nimble strategies of living with a changing climate today.

Awareness of such climate changes, responses to them, their long and tangled afterlives, is at the fingertips of historians trained to uncover and, importantly, share it. Crafting and sharing accounts of how people lived with climate change offers historians a way of uncovering and telling longer histories of creative, constant climate persistence to offer context for rural communities facing anthropogenic climate change today. Such stories—if historians can figure out a way to tell them—can marshal a heritage of climate adaptation in the service of imagining and implementing broad-reaching strategies for responding to the climate crisis.


[1] J. Luterbacher and C. Pfister, “The Year Without a Summer,” Nature Geoscience 8 (2015). 246–48; Christian Pfister and Sam White, “A Year Without a Summer, 1816,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Climate History, ed. Sam White, Christian Pfister, and Franz Mauelshagen (London:, 2018), 551–61, https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-43020-5_35.

[2] Wm. G. Crosby, “Annals of Belfast for Half a Century, by an Old Settler.” Republican Journal. (Belfast, ME), May 22, 1913.

[3] “Original Communications,” Maine Farmer & Journal of the Arts 8 (May 16, 1840), 148–49.

[4] Karen E. Alexander et al., “Tambora and the Mackerel Year: Phenology and Fisheries during an Extreme Climate Event,” Science Advances 3 1 (Jan. 6, 2017), e1601635, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1601635.

[5] Crosby, “Annals of Belfast for Half a Century.”

[6] Clarence Albert Day, A History of Maine Agriculture, 1604–1860 (Orono, ME, 1954), 108–14; Howard S. Russell, A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England (Hanover, NH: 1976), 278.

[7] Crosby, “Annals of Belfast for Half a Century.”

[8] John D. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World (Baltimore, 1977).

[9] [title?] Republican Journal (Belfast, ME), June 20, 1907, 7.

[10] William H. Beveridge, “Wheat Prices and Rainfall in Western Europe,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 85, no. 3 (1922), 412–75; Robert W. Kates, “The Interaction of Climate and Society,” in Climate Impact Assessment: Studies of the Interaction of Climate and Society, ed. Robert W. Kates, Jesse H. Ausubel, and Mimi Berberian (New York, 1985), 3–36.

[11] Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, The Princeton History of the Ancient World (Princeton, NJ, 2017); Adam Sundberg, “Claiming the Past: History, Memory, and Innovation Following the Christmas Flood of 1717,” Environmental History20, no. 2 (2015), 238–61, https://doi.org/10.1093/envhis/emv002; Thomas M. Wickman, Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast, Studies in Environment and History (Cambridge, UK, 2018).

[12] Jade A. D’Alpoim Guedes et al., “Twenty-First Century Approaches to Ancient Problems: Climate and Society,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS 113, no. 51 (2016), 14483–91, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1616188113.

28 July 2023

About the Author

Emma C. Moesswilde is a PhD candidate in history at Georgetown University.

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