How "The Year Without Summer" Demonstrated the Big Effect Just a Few Degrees of Climate Change Can Have

etching of Tamora

1816 was known as “The year without summer” but it was a lot more than that; it was a global cataclysm. It occurred the year after the explosion of Mount Tambora an island in Indonesia, which sent so much ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that it blocked the sun and caused the average global temperature to drop 2°C. Two degrees doesn’t sound like much, but as noted in our post on the anniversary, made 1816 the coldest year since the 1400s. Crops failed, people starved and rioted, diseases ran rampant, rivers froze. Thousands of farmers left New England for the midwest; Vermont alone had a population drop of 15,000 people.

Now Tony Andrews of Quartz picks up the story, painting “an all-too-graphic picture of what we can expect in future if we don’t slow the progress of climate change today.” He describes how “a difference of just a few degrees in average global temperatures is associated with a number of far-reaching effects, such as food shortages, political unrest, mass migration, and a more rapid spread of diseases.”

He talks to Geographer Rüdiger Glaser:

Glaser goes on to argue that no matter how advanced our economies become, there is no escaping our fundamental dependencies. “Our basic needs are food and health,” he says. Once food security is threatened, we all become vulnerable to the knock-on effects observed in the Tambora crisis—including political upheaval and, ultimately, mass migration in the form of economic refugees.
Take the Arab Spring, for example: A heat wave in Russia, Canada, and other leading wheat-producing countries became one of the triggers for an increase in bread prices. This was felt particularly acutely in the Arab world, which is a net importer of wheat. When the Syrian, Egyptian, and Tunisian governments failed to ameliorate these effects, instability followed. The consequences of the resultant unrest, at least in the Syrian case, are still being felt all around the world today, demonstrating how a climate-related event can have drastic follow-on effects in other sociopolitical realms.

It is perhaps a stretch to compare a short-term event like Tambora to a longer term climate crisis, and a cooling era to a warming, but there are definitely lessons in how sensitive our politics are to climate.

On the bright side, we got Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and we have noted that the Tambora crisis led to the invention of the predecessor of the bicycle in 1817:

Baron Karl von Drais needed a means of inspecting his tree stands that did not rely on horses. Horses and draft animals were also the victims of the "Year without Summer" as they could not be fed in the great numbers that had been used. Drais discovered that by placing wheels in a line on a frame one could balance through dynamic steering. Thus a narrow vehicle capable of maneuvering on his lands-the Laufsmaschine became the immediate precurser of the bicycle.

J.M.W. Turner/Public Domain

And then there was a decade of really beautiful sunsets.