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1816: Volcanoes and the Year Without A Summer, Legend of Blue Snow

Updated on June 22, 2015
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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.

1816 Summer with respect to 1971-2000 climate data.
1816 Summer with respect to 1971-2000 climate data. | Source

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.

Lamma evening,This is near Hon Kong about a year after an eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines
Lamma evening,This is near Hon Kong about a year after an eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines | Source
Plume from eruption of Chaiten volcano in Chile.  Shown here to illustrate volcanic ash.
Plume from eruption of Chaiten volcano in Chile. Shown here to illustrate volcanic ash. | Source

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.

Benjamin Franklin 1759
Benjamin Franklin 1759

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.

Literary sidelight

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

Summing up


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.

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    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

      How interesting, red and brown snow. I always liked Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. I enjoyed the way you compare 1816 to the legend.

    • dahoglund profile image
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      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for being the first to comment.Some time ago I saw a History channel or some such about the volcanoes and the icy summers. I think it was also involved with Iceland. Anyhow it made me think of the Paul Bunyan stories and wonder if the folk stories were somehow based on what had happened in nature.Anyhow us folks on the NNorth country don't have anything better to do.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      A very interesting Hub! Voted up and awesome.

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I'm glad you liked. Thanks for commenting and for the votes.

    • profile image

      Sophia Angelique 5 years ago

      This was a good read. For SEO purposes, you need to get the words, "Volcanoes and 1816 Year Without A Summer" into the first paragraph, even if it is just a heading. Then you need to use various combinations of those words in the first paragraph. Then you need to put them all into the tag system. Also, you would combine the first two paragraphs to make a longer first paragraph.

      Then, you should make a title that combines characters with the volcano, etc. All of these are SEO techniques that get your article more likely to be found on the web.

      The article, if it were print, is well constructed.

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the advice. I am trying to get a hang of SEO but it will take awhile to catch on to it.I will take you advice.

    • Dexter Yarbrough profile image

      Dexter Yarbrough 5 years ago from United States

      I loved reading about Paul Bunyan growing up. Anyway, great hub. Enoyed it very much!

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for reading and commenting.Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Tamarajo profile image

      Tamarajo 5 years ago from Southern Minnesota

      that was super interesting.

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Glad you liked it. Thanks for commenting.

    • QudsiaP1 profile image

      QudsiaP1 5 years ago

      legends can always be so much fun to know about. Thanks.

    • profile image

      ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      I am amazed at the number of odd stories told in myth and legend that are based somewhat on fact. I have heard that the story of Paul Bunyan was not really a tall tail but rather a charactor created by a lumber company as a promotional gimmick, similar to Tony the Tiger or Rudolph the red nose raindeer. A good hub.

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      QudsiaP1

      Myths and legends in my mind have meaning as much as factual history does.They sort of indicate what was culturally important at the time. Thanks for taking the time to read this and commenting.

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      ruffridyer

      It is true that he was somewhat created as we know him by the lumber companies. However, the lumberjacks told their stories before that, many of which are too ribald to print in children's stories and such.Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Beautiful, my brother. As usual, I am glad to know how you make a beautiful hub like this one by combining the history. You never disappoint us as a reader. VOtTE UP, you deserve with this appreciation. Have a nice weekend.

      Prasetio

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Excellent hub. It's especially interesting in light of the recent volcano actvity which grounded air travel. I'd always liked the Paul Bunyon legend and this is an interesting twist on it. I wonderf if the Norse legend of Fimbulwinter was connected to a volcanic eruption.

      Rob

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      prasetio

      Thank you for your complimentary comment.I think that legends and actual events are often related and we sometimes need to know one to understand the other.

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 5 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      i really enjoyed reading this and realising that weather extremes are not a modern phenomenon

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Robrite,

      I was not familiar with Fimbulwinter, so I did a quick look up on wikipedia.I didn't see anything about volcanoes and it dates back to a much earlier time.What the legend reminds me of is the Biblical story of Job.

      Thanks for the comment and giving me something to think about.

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      CASE1WORKER

      that's true.There have been cold and warm periods before people were ever on the planet.Thanks for the comment.

    • 2patricias profile image

      2patricias 5 years ago from Sussex by the Sea

      This is very interesting! I used to live in a large house in Wales that was built in 1815. Some of the windows were bricked up, and the local story was that as soon as the house was built the weather turned cold. The windows were bricked up to make the house warmer inside. I always thought this was just nonsense , but who knows?

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      This story fascinated me when I saw it on TV, I think it was the History channel. My immediate thought was the Paul Bunyan stories.My only question would be why bricks? I understand they are not good insulators. Thanks for commenting.

    • Carolyn Moe profile image

      Carolyn Moe 5 years ago

      Growing up in Northwest Iowa we took several family vactations to Minnesota and I clearly remember the time we took photos of this Paul Bunyan and his blue ox statue. For me it ranked right up there with Mount Rushmore. Tall, big, and exciting! Good post and thanks for commenting on my post.

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I didn't grow up in Iowa but my siblings did.I've been back there a number of times. i worked in Forest City Which is not to far off I-35 now.

      It got my interest that a folktale reflected something that happened in nature..

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Carolyn Moe profile image

      Carolyn Moe 5 years ago

      Having studied bible and anthropology-sociology in school seems everything reflected something that happened in nature;)Thanks for following my hubs... any tips on getting followers?... just keep plugging/writing away?... what goes around comes around?... ?

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I am not particularly aggressive in that regard so a lot of people who have been here as long as me have a lot more followers. Some treat it like a social network and go for having lots of fans.I think it is probably best to aim at developing followers by picking hubbers with similar interests and leaving fan mail,sometimes inviting them to be you fan as well.

      Participating in forums is probably the best way to get known, although I have not done so all that much.

      You could ask that question on on of the appropriate forums.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Vanderleelie profile image

      Vanderleelie 4 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

      An excellent hub about a climate event that had dramatic impact on people and agriculture. Voted up and interesting.

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Vanderleelie, I always felt there was probably some real event behind folklore stories such as the year of two winters in the Paul Bunyan stories. It turned out that there is. I appreciate your votes and comment.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 22 months ago from East Coast, United States

      I remember reading about that year without a summer. It's amazing how something that happens on the other side of the world can cut such a wide swath. Our world is smaller than we like to think!

    • dahoglund profile image
      Author

      Don A. Hoglund 22 months ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      There are powerful forces in nature that, I think, have shaped and reshaped the planet.What interested me about this event was how it got preserved in oral history

      I appreciate your reading and commenting on the hub.

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