10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age

Larry Holzwarth - April 17, 2018

Imagine ice floes on the Great Lakes in June. New York Harbor frozen over so that people could walk across it from Manhattan to Staten Island. In Europe, an Army from Sweden marching across the frozen strait of the Great Belt to attack their Danish enemies in Copenhagen. It happened during a period which is known as the Little Ice Age, affecting Europe and North America and to a lesser extent, South America and Asia. Climatologists and scientists cannot agree on when it began, nor its duration, with some claiming it lasted more than four centuries and others arguing for a shorter existence.

It produced shorter growing seasons which led to widespread famine. Famine in turn led to reduced populations and wars. The superstitious took to blaming the weather on witches and sorcery, and witchcraft trials in Europe became common. Europe began organized witch hunts during the Little Ice Age, despite the protestations of the Catholic Church that only God could control the weather. Across Christian Western Europe, Jews were blamed for the causes of reduced livestock, because of lack of fodder to feed animals. The food chain collapsed, leading to malnutrition, disease, death. In the British Isles and across coastal Europe, storms led to flooding which destroyed what crops did exist.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
Dutch men, women, and children playing and enjoying the ice in the mid-seventeenth century. Wikimedia

Here are ten facts about the Little Ice age for your consideration.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
After marching across the frozen Little and Great Belts in subzero weather, the Swedes prepared to take Copenhagen. Wikimedia

Marching across the sea

During the Little Ice Age the peoples of Europe and in the new colonies of North America went about their business, one of which was all too often war. In 1658, one of the coldest years ever recorded in Northern Europe, Sweden was at war with Poland, and the armies of Swedish King Charles X Gustav were unable to defeat a larger Polish Army. Charles was prepared to withdraw from Poland, but feared the effects of a defeat on his throne. King Frederick III of Denmark joined this Second Northern War, offering Charles an opportunity to disengage with the Poles and their allies and attack Denmark without returning to Sweden, saving face despite failing to defeat the Poles.

Charles marched his small but professional, well-equipped, and battle hardened army to Jutland, brushing aside Danish resistance. The Danes withdrew to the islands which are bordered by three belts connecting the Baltic Sea to the North Sea via the Kattegat. When the Swedes arrived at Jutland, the Danes believed themselves to be safely protected by the straits in their positions on the Islands of Funen, where the Little Belt separated them from Swedish troops, and on Zealand, separated from Funen by the Great Belt.

The extreme cold and pack ice in the belts made the idea of an attack using ship’s boats impossible. As the temperature continued to drop through December the ice floes in the belts began to merge and congeal. Engineers from Charles’s army suggested that the troops could march across the ice, including the cavalry and the horse drawn artillery. In the wee hours of January 30, 1658, the Swedish army marched across the frozen Little Belt, while the ice creaked and twisted beneath their feet. About 3,000 Danish defenders attempted to attack them on the ice but were easily defeated. With the Swedes safely on Funen a means of reaching the main Danish Army on Zealand was needed.

The 12,000 man Swedish Army waited on Funen while the engineers examined the Great Belt for the best means of crossing. They decided that the ice was thickest, and thus safest for the army, if it took a circular route to the north and east, a giant curve across the frozen sea, rather than marching directly across the strait. The King crossed with the cavalry on the night of February 5, and by February 8 the Swedish Army was on the island of Zealand, with the Danish capital of Copenhagen now under the threat of direct attack. By February 26 the Danes, unprepared for the attack which Charles had launched in the dead of winter, capitulated to their enemy.

Seawater freezes at a temperature of about 28.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The waters of the belts had to freeze to a depth of more than a foot to be able to support the weight of the Swedish artillery, supply wagons, mounted troops, and the rhythmic tread of several thousand men as they marched across the frozen straits. The Second Northern War was not the only incident of the climate affecting military affairs during the Little Ice Age, but it was one of the most dramatic. The Swedes crossed the Little Belt at a point where its width was just over three miles. The crossing of the Great Belt was several miles longer due to the circular route selected by the Swedish Engineers.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
At Morristown in 1779-80 the Continental Army endured their worst winter of the war, starving in drafty huts such as this one. National Park Service

The Winter of 1780 in Morristown New Jersey

In the winter of 1780 New York Harbor froze over, driving the British ships out to sea and offering George Washington and the Continental Army an opportunity to attack the British in New York across the ice, imitating the Swedes of more than a century before. The problem was that the winter of 1779-80 was the worst of the war, far worse than the famed winter at Valley Forge, and the ice and snow created supply problems which nearly destroyed the Continental Army. As far south as the York and James peninsulas in Virginia the rivers froze over completely or were blocked with ice floes.

The British Army in New York and the eastern tip of Long Island used sleds to transport firewood across the harbor from New Jersey and Staten Island. Couriers rode their horses across the harbor. In Philadelphia that January, the recorded temperature managed to creep over 32 degrees but once, at that for less than an hour. A clerk for the Continental Congress reported the ink in his pen frozen solid, despite being in his parlor before a good fire in mid-afternoon. Clocks and pocket watches froze as time seemingly stood still. As bad as January was, February was worse.

The frozen roads, deep snows, and extreme cold made travel virtually impossible, and supplies reached the Americans encamped at Morristown only sporadically. Food was scarce and firewood scarcer as the Continental troops sat out the winter on an exposed, windswept elevated plain, chosen for its defensive characteristics rather than potential creature comforts. In all of the diaries and surviving letters from the Americans and foreign volunteers, those who mention the weather all claim the winter to have been the worst of the their experience, the coldest they had known, whether they hailed (as some did) from Sweden, Poland, Germany, Maine, and even Russia.

Throughout the worst of the weather the Continental Army largely remained intact, the consensus being that it was better to freeze and starve together, than desert and freeze and starve alone. When the weather finally began to moderate, in early April, the number of desertions increased and the roads went from impassable blocks of snow and ice to impassable bogs of mud and mire. Supplies continued to but trickle in and that spring the Continental Army endured several mutinies among its unfed, unclothed, and unpaid troops.

Like many winters of the Little Ice Age, the winter of 1779-80 in North America was one which helped shape the history of the nation. Because of the mutinies and lapses of discipline which occurred in its wake the winter is less known among Americans than that of Valley Forge. Morristown doesn’t jibe with the American image of stoic silence and perseverance in the face of unbelievable hardship, part of the legend of the Revolution. Morristown was the worst winter of the Revolutionary War, but not the worst winter of the Little Ice Age, in either North America or Europe.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
Londoners enjoying a Frost Fair during the Little Ice Age. Scientists disagree over when the Little Ice Age began and when it ended. Wikimedia

When was the Little Ice Age?

Scientists have differing opinions of when the Little Ice Age began, when it ended, and whether or not there was more than one such event. Some scientists postulate that the Little Ice Age as we know it began around the middle of the 17th century, others believe that it was underway nearly four centuries before that date, covering a large portion of the Middle Ages. Most agree that it ended late in the nineteenth century, or at the latest by the second decade of the twentieth. Thus many events of European history, such as famines in France, Poland, Europe’s Great Famine, and others during the medieval period are sometimes attributed to the Little Ice Age.

Unlike the debate over climate change in the 21st century, the causes of the Little Ice Age are clear and are recorded in the geological evidence. Glacial expansion and encroachment took place on a global scale, and volcanic activity in some regions contributed clouds of ash and dust which contributed to further cooling. It has been suggested that the cooling period began with the eruption of the Salamas volcano in Indonesia in 1257, an event which deposited vast amounts of aerosols into the atmosphere and reduced solar warming. The Salamas event has been directly linked to crop failures and thus famine in Europe, but whether it was the trigger for the Little Ice Age is less clear.

Around the year 1300, what was expected to be cyclical in Europe, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, became disrupted. Winters were more severe, Springs too dry, and the warmth of Summer no longer arrived reliably. Famines and the diseases caused by malnutrition ravaged the continent; so did the plague. People sought out scapegoats for the climate changes and two in particular emerged on the European continent, witches and Jews. The Church attempted to prevent persecutions at first, arguing that only God controlled the weather, and that witches could not overpower God. Its arguments went unheeded among the superstitious.

The Catholic Church did not deny the existence of witches and sorcerers, both appear in the Bible, only the extent of their power. As temperatures dropped and crops failed, the earliest witchcraft trials and persecutions occurred in Europe. Honey was an important commodity during the Middle Ages, both as a sweetener and as a preservative, since honey contains no bacteria and thus is not susceptible to spoilage. Honey became scarce as continuing cold weather prevented bees from pollinating plants. Cows with less fodder produced less milk. These and other events were attributed to witchcraft.

Most accused of witchcraft were women, often widows with no husband to defend them against the spurious accusations of neighbors. Jews were accused of spreading diseases such as the plague. Many Christians opined that the loss of the warmth of the sun was a sign of divine retribution against those whom displeased Him, and took it upon themselves to make matters right with the Lord. This led to an exodus of many central European Jews to the Ottoman Empire, where they found a less oppressive regime under the Turks.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
A contemporary account of what is believed to be the first Thames Frost Fair in 1608. Houghton Library, Harvard

Living with the ice

By the middle of the seventeenth century the glacial encroachment across Northern Europe had led to the abandonment of farms and smaller towns in the Alpine regions of Switzerland, Austria, and the Italian Tyrol. In the usually more temperate British Isles, which are warmed by the Gulf Stream despite their northerly location, winters grew increasingly severe, with rivers and canals freezing solid, and the freezes setting in earlier in the fall and lasting later in the spring. Since the flow of water was the main source of power to drive gristmills to produce flours from grains, flour and other millage became scarce and more expensive to buy.

The Thames river tidal raceway at London froze over, either solidly or very nearly so, 26 times during the period known as the Little Ice Age, helped in some degree by the slowing of the current caused by London Bridge. During the Winter of 1683-84, the coldest in the history of England, the Thames was frozen solidly from bank to bank for a period of two months. In London the layer of ice atop the frozen river was nearly one foot thick. Several of England’s harbors and ports were unusable, threatened by ice which extended into the North Sea for several miles and disrupted navigation between British ports and across the Channel to the Low Countries and France.

The Thames had frozen over before, though never for so long a period of time, and the Londoners had begun the celebrations of ice fairs, with the first taking place in 1608. During the ice fairs, people set up tents on the frozen river and enjoyed the entertainments of the day, including ice skating, games of bowls, jugglers and acrobats, and being British, beers and ales. They called the events the Thames Frost Fairs, and walking across and along the river to enjoy what the fairs offered was a popular, though chilly, entertainment. The frost fairs would continue into the nineteenth century. At times revelers would encamp on the river.

In 1536, Henry VIII traveled on the river on the ice in a sleigh drawn by horses. He traveled from his residence in central London to Greenwich. His daughter, while on the throne as Queen Elizabeth I, was a frequent user of the ice as a place of winter resort. At the first formally organized Thames Frost Fair in 1608, a printer sold souvenir cards of the event, with the name of the customer and an acknowledgment that the card was printed in a shop erected on the surface of the Thames. One of his amused customers was Charles II, then King of England.

During the 1683-84 frost, which began in late December, streets were laid out on the river and populated with shops. Carriages wended their way through, including the large Hackney coaches, sharing the streets with sleighs and pedestrians. The bitter cold impeded the rise of smoke from the many fires of wood and coal, and breathing, difficult enough in the frigid air, was made even more so. Thousands of deer in the Royal Parks died of the cold, as did waterfowl and other animals. On February 2 1684 (Candlemas Day) a whole oxen was spit roasted on the Thames, with both the King and Queen present for its serving in tents erected for the purpose, near Whitehall Steps.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
The Frost Fair of 1683. The rings of people near the center appear to be for bear-baiting or dogfighting. Wikimedia

River Thames Frost Fairs

During the winters when the Thames froze over solidly Frost Fairs were held, sporadically and somewhat spontaneously, up until the early nineteenth century. These were not the only such fairs held in England, other streams would freeze over and be the site of a community celebration. Canals were also the site of winter festivals and frost fairs. They seem to have arisen from a desire to make the best of circumstances, and in a time when the chill of winter was often bitter cold, at least it was a brief period outdoors, in daylight, or at least in what daylight could penetrate the fog, coal, and wood smoke. Forecasting the weather was virtually unknown, and frost fairs could end as quickly as they began.

In 1789 one such Frost Fair, on the Thames, ended in a disaster when rapidly rising temperatures and faster than normal ice melting created dangerous conditions and resulted in at least five deaths. A ship in the Thames had tied itself up to a Public House along the banks of the river. As the ice rapidly receded the ship was pulled along with it. Although a watch had been left aboard, he preferred the warmth and conviviality of the Public House and by the time it was realized what was happening the ship was trapped in the flood and it pulled down the building as it was carried downriver. At least five people were killed.

Just a few days before, in January of 1789, the Bishop of London recorded in his diary of the Thames being completely frozen over, with businesses erected on the river and people, horses, carriages, drays, pushcarts with peddlers pushing their wares, all intermingling across it as if it were a public park. The Bishop, Beilby Porteus, (who would later refer to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason as ungodly and dangerous doctrine) took the opportunity to go for a stroll on the river in the company of his wife. He recorded that they walked along the surface from Fulham, where they lived, to Putney, a distance of just less than a mile.

Following the American Revolution and throughout the Industrial Revolution improvements were made along the Thames. Embankments were created, which increased the flow of the river, making it less likely to freeze. In the early 1830s the medieval London Bridge was removed, and future bridges there and other places crossing the river featured more open archways, which offering less impediment to the current. Many of the old docks and wharves, where ice floes formerly gathered and encouraged freezing over, were replaced. But most of all, as the nineteenth century wore on, the climate began to warm and the winters became more moderate.

In February 1814, as the Napoleonic Wars were entering their final phases, the River Thames froze over and for five days hosted a Frost Fair which proved to be its last. A printer named Warner built a stall on the ice, equipped with his printing press, and produced Frostiana: Or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State. The fair was mostly concentrated between Blackfriars and London Bridges, and according to Frostiana, a feature of the fair was the leading of an elephant across the frozen river beside Blackfriars Bridge. The final (so far) Frost Fair was over by February 6, as the river quickly resumed its normal state of flowing to the sea.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
Although their hardiness is unquestioned, the Viking Settlements in Greenland were doomed in part by the vagaries of climate during the Little Ice Age. Wikimedia

The Norse settlements in Greenland

That Greenland was first explored (by Europeans) by Norsemen led by Eric the Red is relatively well known. Eric the Red’s father had been banished from Norway and settled in Iceland. Eric eventually married, built a farm, and killed a rival, for which he was banished from Iceland for manslaughter (the same crime as his father’s). During his banishment Eric the Red explored much of the coast of Greenland for suitable areas for settlement. Once his three year exile was complete Eric returned to Iceland, gathered additional settlers, and established settlements in Greenland, despite limited areas being available for raising crops.

Eric’s son Leif later explored the area of North America which he called Vinland and which is now believed to have been Newfoundland. After Eric’s death the colonies established on Greenland remained, with the settlers trading with the ancestors of the Inuit as well as with relatives of North America’s Algonquin peoples. Hunting of seals and fishing provided meat to be preserved year round, but the grains necessary to sustain life could not be produced in sufficient quantity. This necessitated trade to the west, as the winds and the behavior of the North Atlantic in winter made travel to Europe nearly impossible.

There is ample evidence of trade with North American tribes, both in the ruins of the Norse settlements in Greenland and in the runes and oral traditions found in various North American locations. But the Norse colonies vanished and left behind fewer clues as to the fate of their inhabitants than did the lost Colony of Roanoke. Recent evidence indicates that their fate and the failure of the Norse Colonies was largely due to the Little Ice Age and its impact on both farming and travel. The short growing season meant that not enough crops could be produced on available lands.

The lands suitable for farming were less than was needed, with glacial encroachment limiting the period of the year in which growing could be accomplished. The raising of cattle, as a matter of social prestige as much as for food, also took needed nutrition from grains away from the Norse. Trade, although it clearly took place, was insufficient to make up the difference, as weather conditions made travel difficult if not impossible. The Norse settlements were still operating as late as the early fifteenth century, according to radiocarbon dating.

In the 1720s an expedition was sent to Greenland to re-establish contact with the Norse settlements. They were gone. Exactly what happened to them is still a mystery, with some believing that they resettled in Newfoundland and other areas of North America. Had they settled there in the first place, rather than on remote Greenland in the middle of the Little Ice Age, they may have been more successful, and North America may have developed as Scandinavian colonies, rather than mostly British and French. That is just one more area of speculation on how the evolution of climate affects the evolution of civilization.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
Although there are no known images of Robert Rogers made from life, he was once as famous in America and England as George Washington. Wikimedia

The Little Ice Age and the French and Indian War

During the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries it was customary for armies during wartime to retire into winter camps, avoiding contact with the enemy other than through the occasional collision of patrols. During the 1754-63 conflict in North America known as the French and Indian War, this was the policy followed by the European Armies and most of their North American allies. The severity of the winters during that conflict, especially in New York, New England, and Canada, precluded the movements of large armies, especially along a major theatre of the war, the Hudson River Valley.

During the French and Indian War, fought during the Little Ice Age, the upper reaches of the Hudson River and the waterways of Lake George, Lake Champlain, the Richelieu, and other bodies of water in what is now upstate New York and Canada froze over routinely. Heavy snows blanketed the region in white from November until April, and sometimes May. Temperatures were brutally cold, often remaining well below freezing for weeks at a time. Unprotected skin froze quickly. Darkness came early, particularly in the deep woods of the region.

Attacks on British outposts and American settlements increased during the winter months in the first year of the war, led by French coureurs de bois (runners of the woods) and their Indian allies. In order to counter these attacks and keep apprised of the movements of the enemy the British needed a new type of soldier, and their American allies created one. They were called the Rangers, and their primary leader was Robert Rogers, a questionable character under indictment for forgery when the war began. Rogers wrote his famous “Rules of Ranging” which are still listed in the US Army’s Rangers Handbook. He invented a new kind of soldier and a new kind of warfare.

Rogers Rangers were trained in the art of moving through the deep snow on snowshoes, making them as mobile in the depth of winter as they were on a bright summer’s day. The Rangers fought two battles on snowshoes during the winters of the war. When they encountered frozen streams and lakes the Rangers strapped on ice skates and used the waterways to their advantage. Their winter apparel included woolen layers against the cold, under furs which covered them from skull to toes. Rogers was one of the first to recommend several layers of light clothing rather than just one of heavy material. The Rangers were mobile, fast, and deadly in combat, and by the end of the French and Indian War the only soldier in America more famous than Rogers was George Washington.

The Little Ice Age continued to plague military operations in North America during the Revolutionary War and to a lesser degree the war of 1812. In both of those wars, Ranging companies were established in which the soldiers were forced to cope with the movements of the enemy and the brutality of the climate. Rogers’ Rangers on patrol suffered immeasurably from the harshness of the elements, more so than other troops which remained in camp during the worst of the winter weather. They had to learn the lessons of survival during some of the worst winter weather in the history of the North American continent and they learned them well enough to pass them down to succeeding generations.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
Among the superstitious, witchcraft and sorcery supplanted climate as the source of bad harvests and failed crops. Uffizi Gallery

A century of famine

During the Little Ice Age famines hit Europe with regularity, striking some countries in repetitive years, others in years with gaps in between occurrences. Nearly all of the famines occurred in conjunction with wars, and often the famines were a consequence of war, while other times they were a root cause. Harsh winters, late frosts, dry growing seasons, early frosts, all led to bad harvests, which in turn led to severe shortages of food and eventually malnutrition, disease, and death. The nations of Europe were wracked, year after year, and efforts by governments to ease conditions often led to misunderstanding and unrest.

In 1693-94 for example the Great Famine in France led to the death of 1.5 million people from starvation or nutritionally related disease. The famine was caused by the harshness of the winter of 1691-92, which didn’t break until late in the spring months, when the already wet soil in much of the country was further inundated by heavy rains. Much of the crop was lost due to the overly wet soil. What did survive the bad spring suffered through a dry summer with drought conditions in many places, followed by an early frost. The bad harvest meant that during the winter of 1693-94 there were shortages of food and widespread disease. Only the Mediterranean region of southern France was spared.

Estonia suffered consecutive years of weather related bad harvests in 1694 and 1695. The following year the growing season was beset by continuing cold and wet conditions, including days in the summer months when near freezing temperatures occurred. After three straight failed growing seasons many Estonians lacked the strength to survive the bitter winter of 1696-97, with about 20% of the Estonian population dying of starvation over the winter months, even as Swedish merchants (Estonia being under Swedish control at the time) exported what grain there was to markets in Europe.

Between the years 1708 -11 crops failures due to the poor growing conditions in East Prussia led to famine conditions in which over 40% of the population succumbed to starvation or disease. In Finland a famine in 1697-98 killed more than a third of the population. Over the continent of Europe the cooling of the climate and the limitations thus imposed on the growing season made one nation after another unable to support itself, governments unable to do anything about it, and trade requirements unable to ease the situation, driven as they were by profits rather than charity.

The British Isles and Ireland were not immune. Both England and Scotland suffered from crop failures related to the weather and the Great Famine of Ireland, 1740-41, was a result too of the changes in climate wrought by the Little Ice Age. The Irish Famine was caused by successive crop failures, a result of too cold and too wet conditions, the destruction of much of the potato harvest through frost damage, and because of the inability to properly feed cows and goats, rampant shortages of milk. Over 900,000 Irish people died in the disaster, which was largely climate caused. The Irish have a name in their own language for this famine. It translates to “Year of Slaughter”.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
The Little Ice Age changed the density and tonal quality of woods, such as those used by Antonio Stradivari in the manufacture of his violins. Wikimedia

Advances in humanity during the Little Ice Age

Looking at paintings and other depictions of people in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century one often marvels at the amount of clothing they are wearing. Looking at them considering the context of the Little Ice Age places them in another light entirely. It was often cold year around, with summers never reaching the temperatures which are common today, in Europe and North America (the Little Ice Age did impact many other areas, including India and China, but aren’t discussed here). The global crisis was not viewed as such, it was seen as a series of local crises, with local solutions proposed.

The fastening of clothes was changed during the Little Ice Age, although the changes seem to have been born through synchronicity, rather than occurring in solely one place. Clothes which had formerly been closed about the body through the use of ties and laces became equipped with buttons and buttonholes, a more secure defense against the intrusions of unwanted chill air. The means of weaving wool in tighter patterns, creating a tighter insulating barrier were achieved, and wool clothing began to take on a more finely finished appearance.

Communities in the famine stricken areas began to use their own initiative to create emergency food stocks of grain, set aside against a recurrence of widespread crop failures, although this action was frowned upon by tax levying governments and profit driven merchants and dealers. Few of the people across Europe owned the land upon which they farmed, and most of the crops they produced belonged to the landowner, after subtracting an allowance for their own subsistence. The first of the many simmering resentments which led to the overthrow of the nobility in France began during the Little Ice Age.

Crime and punishment was changed by the economic and social changes caused by the Little Ice Age. The crime of stealing food became one subject to draconian penalties even as people were starving, or perhaps because people were starving. Until it became apparent to many that the cause of the bad harvests was witchcraft afoot, punishments for its practice had been minor. They became considerably more severe as a result of the panic and suffering surrounding the climatic changes of the Little Ice Age, which of course even the most advanced scientists of the day were incapable of comprehending.

During the renaissance period, which was overlapped by the Little Ice Age, advancements in the manufacture of musical instruments, including violins, violas, pianofortes, and harpsichords, not to mention many others, made great forward strides in quality. It has been proposed that the different conditions to which the woods used for these instruments were exposed, particularly as they were being seasoned prior to their use, altered the density of the material so that it created a tone unique to the era in which it was made.

10 Bizarre Things One Need to Know About the Little Ice Age
Because of the inclement weather in 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and friends held a contest to decide who among them could write the most frightening book. Her’s was Frankenstein. National Portrait Gallery UK

The year when there was no summer.

In 1814, as Europe was struggling with both the Napoleonic Wars and the many years of crop failure and poor harvests caused throughout the Little Ice Age, Mt. Mayon, a Philippine volcano, erupted. The following year Mt. Tambora, in the East Indies, released the largest eruption felt on Earth in nearly 13 centuries. The combination of these two events was catastrophic, releasing enough ash and aerosols into the atmosphere to decrease temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere by just over 1 degree Fahrenheit. The result was global food shortages in 1816.

In Great Britain the drop in temperature led to heavy sustained rains, causing the crops to rot in the fields. Wales was hard hit and Ireland once again saw the failure of its potato, wheat, and oat crops. On the continent of Europe the resulting food shortages led to riots, demonstrations, and increases in thefts and other crimes. Ice dams formed during the summer months in the German and Swiss Alps, from water which would normally be flowing freely down from the mountains. In June Percy Shelley and his wife Mary were forced by the weather to remain indoors while visiting Lake Geneva. Mary amused herself by writing a book which she entitled, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Northern China saw crops destroyed by floods, livestock killed by starvation and unseasonable cold, with citrus trees killed by frosts as late as July. The Indian subcontinent was ravaged by a cholera epidemic which was spread by the delay of the monsoon season until much later than normal. Eventually the cholera epidemic spread as far north as Moscow, still largely un-rebuilt since its destruction by fire in the aftermath of Napoleon’s occupation in 1812. Both China and India suffered the effects of famine in the aftermath of the crop failures of the non-summer of 1816.

Considerable suffering occurred in North America. The corn and wheat crops of New England failed in 1816. Albany reported falling snow on June 6 and in New Jersey that month saw five straight nights of heavy frost, destroying the fragile crops planted earlier in the year. Massachusetts’ Berkshire Hills were covered with frost on a late August night. Throughout the summer, corn ears on the plants froze solidly, and the plant was destroyed in the daytime thaw. The damage in New England and New York was severe, but it was not alone. Further south the effects were felt as the strange weather continued.

Thomas Jefferson, a farmer himself, noted the dramatic temperature swings felt that summer, when a daytime high could reach the mid-nineties only to near freezing the same night, with frost on the ground and the plants in the morning. Many of the east coast farmers were financially devastated by the summer of 1816, and abandoned their farms in the hope of better luck in the newly freed lands west of the Ohio, in the Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri territories. 1816 was truly the year with no summer, but just one year of the Little Ice Age.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Environmental History Resources – The Little Ice Age ca. 1300 – 1870”, by Environmental History Resources, eh-resources.org, online

“Was the Little Ice Age Triggered by Massive Volcanic Eruptions?”, by Science Daily, January 30, 2012

“Frostiana: Or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State”, by George Davis, February 5, 1814, pdf

“The Seventeenth Century: Europe in Ferment”, by Alanson Lloyd Moote, 1970

“Winter at Morristown 1779-1780: The Darkest Hour”, by Samuel Stelle Smith, 1979

“Why Did Greenland’s Vikings Vanish?”, by Tim Folger, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2017

“War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier”, by John F. Ross, 2011

“Times of Feast, Times of Famine: a History of Climate since the Year 1000”, by Emmanuel LeRoy LaDurie, 1971

“Blast from the Past”, by Robert Evans, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2002