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Charmed Life

Lost Summer

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By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/21/2002

I just got off the phone with Verizon's dial-up weather report. An emotionless robotic voice told me, "Current Baltimore temperature is 96." That detached voice has pretty much been running on autopilot since June. This has been a torrid summer without a break.

It's enough to make me cast my eyes back to an event that occurred some 10,000 miles away--and more than 180 years ago--that led to what was dubbed "the year without a summer." In June 1816, according to media reports, it snowed in Vermont. In July of that year, ice as "thick as common window pane" formed in Pennsylvania. And that August, killer frosts decimated Maine crops.

It all started in a very warm place--the tropical Indonesian island of Sumbawa, home to a slumbering giant known as Mount Tambora. In April 1815, the giant woke up with a vengeance, exploding in what's been described as the greatest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The roar of the blast was heard more than 550 miles away, and clouds of airborne ash turned day into night for hundreds of miles around. Thousands of islanders perished from the direct effects of Tambora's epic blast, but the cataclysm's nefarious and long-term doings spread far beyond its equatorial epicenter. Though meteorologists of the day (such as they were) didn't make the connection, many scientists today conclude that the sun-blocking ash Tambora hurled into the upper atmosphere (more than 100 times the amount of particulate matter that Mount St. Helens spewed in its 1980 eruption) was to blame for the freakishly cold summer of 1816. The year was colloquially referred to as "eighteen hundred and froze to death."

Accounts of the summerless summer, such as those in Henry and Elizabeth Stommel's 1983 book Volcano Weather, refer mainly to hardships faced by shivering New Englanders, who endured blizzards when they should have been getting sunburns. Maine was still four years from obtaining statehood, but the summertime frosts led many a hardscrabble farmer to pack up for Ohio and other points west. Europe suffered as well, where cold-induced crop failures led to famine and food riots.

But what were Tambora's effects here in Baltimore? To find out, I turned to the pages of the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser, a local paper the Enoch Pratt Library has in bound volumes dating back to the 1790s. I thumbed through the 1816 editions with both wonderment and horror. There are numerous articles about Rembrandt Peale, who illuminated his Baltimore Museum that summer with the nation's first gaslights. An entire industry was born. The paper also contains ads reading, "Cash for Negroes," and, "For Sale: Negro Charles--a slave for life." Gruesome, to say the least.

With consistent and organized meteorological tracking still years in the offing at the time it was published, what the Advertiser didn't have was very much weather news. There were no daily forecasts or temperature reports. I found some intermittent stories on the summer snowfalls and icy nights the northern states were experiencing. (One desperate Massachusetts farmer hoped the "God of the Harvest" hadn't abandoned him.) The only local account of the chilly season I saw came on July 30, with the single line: "The unusual coldness of the weather at this season is remarked with surprize [sic] by some of our oldest citizens, who unite in the opinion that nothing similar has occurred within their recollection."

I had even less luck with microfilmed copies of the 1816 Maryland Gazette, where I found zero weather news. (Admittedly, the eye-straining quality of the battered microfilm kept me from searching for long.) The Niles' Weekly Register, a Baltimore-based national weekly also in bound volumes at the Pratt, had the most to say. It gave the front page of its Aug. 10, 1816, edition over to a climactic discussion, replete with gruesome tales from Maine, where shorn sheep froze to death in the fields and songbirds perished on their nests. (There was speculation that the summer's prolific sunspots might be to blame for the cold.) But Maryland "has been little affected by the cold," the Register concluded.

I did find a one very bizarre reference to a Maryland meteorological anomaly in 1816. The first chapter in Charles Officer and Jake Page's 1993 book Tales of the Earth: Paroxysms and Perturbations of the Blue Planet concerns "the year without a summer." And the very first line in that chapter reads, "People in Maryland knew something was up when the snows of late spring were brown, blue, even red." Alas, the tome makes no further mention of our freakish snowflakes (or references to the information's source).

Red snow? Blue snow? It must have been awfully unnerving to see such stuff piling up on the window ledge. Then again, as I sit here in my torrid rowhouse, I have to admit it sounds, uh, pretty cool.

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