Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death: The Impact of America's First Climate Crisis

Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death: The Impact of America's First Climate Crisis

Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death: The Impact of America's First Climate Crisis

Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death: The Impact of America's First Climate Crisis


Almost 200 years ago the Northeast endured a dramatic, devastating series of cold spells, destroying crops, forcing thousand to migrate west, and causing many to wonder if their assumptions about a world governed by a beneficial Providence were valid. the so-called year without a summer also exposed weaknesses in political and theological authorities, spurring a trend toward scientific inquiry and greater democracy. An endangered New England agriculture gave impetus to that region's manufacturing sector. the alarming threat to existence in that part of the country (as well as most of Western Europe) thus helped usher in the modern era. This book is written with the parallels between 1816 and our current climate change in mind: it introduces informed non-specialists to the myriad of social, psychological, political, demographic, and economic consequences which can be brought about by abrupt change.A major meteorological event profoundly affected our nation's development in 1816. This book shows how this weather phenomenon acted as an accelerator of trends which were just emerging in the early 19th-century - toward greater democracy and the spread of information; settlement of the Western frontier; use of the scientific method to investigate and understand natural phenomena; questioning of long-held religious beliefs as a result of increased knowledge; and industrialization as the means to expand the scope and wealth of the United States.Like all my books, America's First Climate Crisis is written in an accessible, engaging style, using anecdotes and thumbnail sketches to evoke the mood and important personalities of the day. While thoroughly researched, the book avoids the pitfall of academic writing by appealing to the curiosity of intelligent readers who may be put off by uninspired or technical language.The book is organized around various consequences of the disastrous harvests of 1816: after outlining the nature and scope of this calamity, I describe how it brought about a massive exodus to the Ohio Valley and shift in political and economic might to that region; how it undermined the once-unquestioned authority of New England's Federalist establishment; how it gave greater credence to scientific explanations for weather events and disasters; how it compelled New England merchants to abandon their opposition to manufacturing; and how it helped create a modern awareness of humanity's place in the universe.


On the evening of April 10, 1815, fourteen-thousand-foot high Mount Tambora, situated on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, blew apart in the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history — a colossal explosion ten times the size of the more famous one at Krakatoa decades later. Shock waves shook homes in the city of Batavia (present-day Jakarta), eight hundred miles away. Some twenty-four cubic miles of molten magma and pulverized rock were violently spewed into the atmosphere. a dark column of ash and smoke shot up some thirty miles and quickly spread across the Pacific sky, for two days plunging the ocean and islands below into total darkness over a radius of 370 miles. Floating islands of pumice several miles long and over three feet thick covered the surrounding sea. Gas emitted in the explosion reacted with atmospheric water vapor to form droplets of sulfuric acid. These circled the globe, reflecting back sunlight and causing surface temperatures to fall. An estimated seventy-one thousand persons living near Tambora died as a result of this explosion — due to superheated gases, powerful whirlwinds, tsunami waves, starvation, and disease.

But this was only the beginning of this eruption’s impact on life and the

the prominent role played by volcanic eruptions in lowering surface temperatures on earth has been recently confirmed by scientists involved in the Berkeley Earth Land Temperature Project. See, for example, Robert Rohde, et al., “A New Estimate of the Earth Surface Land Temperature Spanning 1753 to 2011,” Journal of Geophysical Research (submitted July 2012). http://berkeleyearth.org/pdf/ results-paper-July-8.pdf This study concludes that increased level of “volcanism” is mainly responsible for the “sudden drops” in temperature during the years 1753–1850.

For these details, see Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald T. Sanders, Volcanoes in Human History: the Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 139–47.

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