1816: Volcanoes and the Year Without A Summer, Legend of Blue Snow
Having been raised in Minnesota I was steeped in Paul Bunyan lore. It is part of the culture and you couldn’t avoid it if you tried.Paul Bunyan, for those who don’t know, is a legendary lumberjack and a giant. He is the subject of many a tall story and those who tell the stories attribute not only great feats of strength but great changes in the environment. However, that is not the subject here. What I am interested in here is the tale about the Year of two Winters and the Year of Blue Snow and how they relate to the year 1816, volcanoes and the year without a summer.
These are both legends of unusual cold. And you might ask, “How cold was it?” It was so cold, the story goes, that Paul found his later to be famous Ox known as Babe the Blue Ox in a snow bank. It was so cold that both the snow bank and the ox had turned blue. Well, Paul brought babe inside to thaw him out but the blue color remained. Babe grew very fast and before long and within a week he was seven ax handles and some between the eyes, and he could eat thirty or so bales of hay at one meal.
If the “year of the blue snow” was cold the “year of two winters” was apparently even worse. It was so cold that the logger’s words froze in the air when they talked. They only way to find out what they said was to catch the words and warm them up in a frying pan to thaw them out. Coffee froze while it was still boiling.
Legends and reality
SIf you live in the northern climates, stories about the cold weather come natural so I enjoyed these stories and thought nothing more about them until I found that the Paul Bunyan stories about the cold might have some historical basis.
1816 The Year Without a Summer
In the year of 1816 there were abnormalities, very serious ones, which caused global temperatures to fall by about 0.7-1.3 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, there were major food shortages in the Northern Hemisphere. General belief is that this abnormal cold resulted from solar activity being unusually low combined with a winter volcanic event caused by several major eruptions. The Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 capped it off as the historically largest eruption in 1,300 years.
Northeastern United States, the Canadian Maritimes, Newfoundland and some parts of Western Europe were most affected. Late spring and summer temperatures of northeastern United States and southeastern Canada are fairly stable with temperatures averaging about 68-77 degrees Fahrenheit and only rarely go below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow would be very rare in the summer.
Observers in the spring and summer of 1816 reported seeing a persistent “dry fog” in northeastern United States. The fog became red and dimmed the sunlight in a way that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. The “fog” was described as a stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil and could not be dispersed by either rain or wind.
Frost in May of 1816 killed most of the crops that had been planted. On June 4, 1816 there were reports in Connecticut of frosts and most of New England was facing a cold front by the next day. There was snowfall in Albany, N.Y. and in Maine. Nearly a foot of snow was seen in Quebec City June 6,1816. More crops were lost with the result of regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and deaths.
By July and August there were observations of lakes and rivers with ice as far south as Pennsylvania. Temperature swings from normal, as high as 95 degrees Fahrenheit to near freezing occurred within hours. Some farmers south of New England managed to harvest some crops but still grain prices rose dramatically.
Crops failed in the British Isles as well due to cool temperatures and heavy rain. In Wales people moved long distances begging for food. Famine prevailed in north and southwest Ireland after crops failed. Germany suffered a sever crisis as food prices rose sharply and cold weather killed trees, rice crops and even water buffalo in China.Flooding did further damage.
Temperatures in New York City got as low as –26 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter of 1817. New York’s Upper Bay froze enough for horse drawn sleighs to be driven across Buttermilk Channel from Brooklyn to Governors Island.
An odd effect was brown snow in Hungary and Italy had red snow falling all year. Not the blue snow of the Paul Bunyan legend. Volcanic ash might have been the reason for the colored snow.
Ben Franklin wrote a paper in 1783 in which he cited an unusually cool summer in 1783 and thought it might be due to volcanic dust coming from Iceland, where the eruption of Laki volcano had released enormous amounts of sulfur dioxide causing the death of the islands livestock, causing a famine, which killed a fourth of the population.
Mary Shelley, John William Polidori and host Lord Byron during July of 1816 decided to stay indoors due to a wet and uncongenial summer for much of a Swiss holiday. To pass the time they decided to have a contest of writing to see who could write the scariest stories. As a result:
- Shelley wrote Frankenstein
- Polidori wrote The Vampire
- Lord Byron wrote The Darkness
Folklore stories of Paul Bunyan tell of winter so cold that it lasted through the following summer. In 1816 there was, in real life, in 1816and 1816 a year known as the year without a summer. It appears to have been caused by volcanic actions resulting in sulfide compounds into the stratosphere. It does seem that folk tales may reflect things that happen in the real world.
Note: Much of the information in this article was extracted from Wikipedia.