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The RockDoctor's Original Guide
to Geology and Geography in SW Pennsylvania

Rocks, Minerals, Geology, and Geography 
of SW Pennsylvania 
Earth's History 1815 Volcano and
"The Summer That Never Was" (1816)

Earth's History.
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Read the history of Mount Tambora

"The Summer That Never Was" (1816)

Tambora's effects continued long after 1815.  Ash particles had  traveled around the globe.  Sunlight was reduced, as were global temperatures which dropped 3 degrees C.  "The Summer That Never Was" occurred in 1816.  Instead of the typical 70 to 80 summertime temperatures in SW Pennsylvania, the area had snowfalls throughout the summer. But the effects weren't connected to Mount Tambora right way.  The 1920s American climatologist William Humphreys reviewed the historical facts and is credited with the discovery. (9)  As well, proof in Greenland's ice field confirmed there was high sulfur concentration at the 1816 layer. (10)  Volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson from the University of Rhode Island has been studying the rock layers at the site  -- The Lost Kingdom of Tambora" or what he refers to as "The Pompeii of the East -- since the 1980s.  He reports finding bones hardened and burnt like charcoal.  The blast was so hot, and occurred so fast without warning, that no one could escape.  He described one woman's remains: "She is lying on her back with her hands outstretched. She is holding a machete or a big knife in one hand. There is a sarong over her shoulder. The sarong is totally carbonized, just like her bones," Sigurdsson says. "Her head is resting on the kitchen floor, just caught there instantly and blown over by the flow."  Plumes of hydrogen-sulfide, looking like snow on rocks from a distance, still vents from the inner sides and bottom crater. (11)

Far from this spewing volcano, now a craggy, steep-walled, mountainous crater -- and some 9,986 miles (16,071 km) from the towns of Southwestern Pennsylvania -- our ancestors were unaware of the events from the other side of the world.  There was no media, no telegraph, no instant-news to warn them of impending dangers.  Therefore, a search of existing local newspapers would maybe tell of the cold temperatures, crop losses, and individual deaths that year, but there'd be no headlines screaming, 'Volcanic ash and sulfur from Indonesia affects citizens of Washington County PA!'

"The months of January and February in the northeastern part of the United States and the Valley were above normal in temperature, while March was about normal. April began warm but turned colder toward the middle of the month and closed out cold and snowy. When May came, buds and young fruits were frozen. Corn was planted, frozen, replanted and frozen again until the season grew too late. In some places, ice an inch thick formed. "Frost, ice and snow were common in June. Most growing things were killed."  ...   "In Pennsylvania and New York, ice was also noted on July 5, 1816. Ice as thick as window panes was also seen on July 5 in Ohio. ... "  .... "Frost and ice were common in August, also.  A heavy freeze on August 29 killed what corn had survived, notably in parts of Pennsylvania where the buckwheat crop was destroyed, as well.  Potato crops also were largely a failure, and most garden vegetables froze." (12)     Indeed, had any scholar of 1815-16 even heard about the volcano and had theorized that the county's difficulties were related to an eruption from across the world, the scholar would have been laughed at in educational circles and disciplined or ostracized within his church.  Instead, people continued their daily struggles, unaware of the reasons for their newest plight.   

Diseases resulting from famine:    

Diseases from cooler weather
The Medical examiner, Volume 2, 1839

When famines occur, people cannot ward off colds and flu as easy.  In the 1800s, flu often resulted in pneumonia which killed thousands.  As well, diseases like Typhoid fever and other fevers inflicted many.  The winter of 1816 brought Pneumonia typhoides which laymen called the "cold-plague", had already swept Eastern States in 1812, 1813, and 1814 and continued its march across the US until about 1816.  Rains and damp conditions, which reportedly caused mold on furniture, books, etc. which likely contributed to asthma and respiratory difficulties which would have been too hard to shake.  Farmers could not dry grain and hay due to lack of sunshine.  As well, sheep had already been shorn, so when snows came later, they were unable to withstand the cold and died.  Newborn animals did not survive, in part because malnourished mothers had no milk.  The same was true for malnourished women, who miscarried or who were unable to produce a live birth.  If a baby survived, its mother had less breast milk and cows did not produce as much milk, if at all.  Many animals had to be slaughtered because, first, people had no other food in reserve since crops, vegetable gardens, and fruit trees failed, second, because there wasn't enough grain and hay to feed animals, and third, malnourished cows give no milk and chickens lay no eggs.  History books refer to this time as "Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death". 

The years 1820-22 brought droughts with little to no rain.  Lower stream levels encouraged growth of algae with a mucous scum or froth on top of the water.  Warm and arid weather increased insect populations, which stripped tree foliage on fruit trees. Grasshoppers ate through crop fields in just two to three days.  Potato-flies by the pint cup could be found on a single hill of planted potatoes.  Lice thrived in the arid conditions. Gray squirrels in high populations ate through fields and even swam rivers to get to their next meal. Low water in the shallows encouraged reed and glass plant growth 5 to 6 months early (instead of in August), so that by mid-Fall the decaying plant matter washed onto land, emitting noxious and smelly gases.  Spores became airborne with late-Fall winds. Pestilence and famine overtook many  communities.  


"The Summer That Never Was" (1816)  

Sources for this 2-part article

1. Image taken June 3, 2009 from space

2. E-How

3. More recent image of Tambora taken from land

4. USGS 

5.  NOAA Article

6.   Flyby photo overhead of Mount Tambora today.

7.  Napoleanic Wars

8.  HistoryOrb 1815

9.  NASA Space photo

10. Ibid.

11.  Tambora, YouTube

12.  VolcanoWeather Ohio Weather Library (OWL) Weather Archives

13.  Location of Mount Tambora

See Also:

Year Without a Summer 1816

National Geographic - Map - 3rd Photo

The Epoch Times, "Science and Technology", Oct. 21-27, 2005, p. 7


Smithsonian Article and Artist Drawings



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