Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Since I was a kid I’ve been reading stories about “The Year Without A Summer”. This was the summer of 1816, one year after the great eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia. The Tambora eruption, in April of 1815, was so huge it could be heard from 2,600 km away (1,600 miles). The stories were always about how the following summer was outrageously cold. Supposedly, the summer was so cold it was like having no summer at all.
Being a suspicious fellow, I got to thinking about that, and I realized I’d never seen any actual temperature data for the year of 1816. So I went off to find some early temperature data. I started with the ECA dataset, and downloaded the Daily Mean Temperature TG (162Mb). That revealed five stations with daily temperature records with starting dates before 1816—Stockholm, Bologna, Milan, Praha-Klementinum, and Hohenpeissenberg.
So once again, I found myself playing “Spot the Volcanoes”, as in my previous post on this subject. When I wrote that post, I hadn’t been able to spot the smaller eruptions of Pinatubo and other modern volcanoes, but Tambora was the big cheese, the grand gorgonzola of volcanoes. Surely I could find that one … so here’s the record from Stockholm.
So the question is, which year is “The Year Without A Summer”? The year indicated by the blue arrow, or the year shown by the green arrow?
Actually, I fear that was a trick question. Here’s the same data, this time with the years indicated.
As you can see, the “Year Without A Summer” actually was warmer than a number of other summers in Stockholm. It’s the third peak from the left in the top panel, and was above 20°C. Just in this tiny sample we see some six summers that were cooler than the summer of 1816 in Stockholm …
So, I looked at the other locations. Here are the other four European cities with records that cover the Tambora eruption—Bologna, Milan, Praha-Klementinum, and Hohenpeissenberg. In these, both the upper and lower panels are from the early 1800s. No more trick questions, in all cases, one or the other of the green and blue arrows actually indicates the “Year Without A Summer”.
Figure 4. Two ten-year periods from the early 1800’s in Milan.
That was all the daily temperature records I could find from that far back. There’s a monthly record from Armagh, in Ireland. Here’s that record.
I’m sure that you can see the difficulty. If Tambora actually did something to the temperature, you sure couldn’t tell it from these records. Not one of them is readily distinguishable as missing a summer.
In “The Great Tambora Eruption in 1815 and Its Aftermath” (paywalled, Science Magazine, 1984), the author says (emphasis mine):
To Europeans and North Americans, 1816 became known as “the year without a summer” (41). Daily temperatures (especially the daily minimums) were in many cases abnormally low from late spring through early fall; frequent north-west winds brought snow and frost to northern New England and Canada, and heavy rains fell in western Europe. Many crops failed to ripen, and the poor harvests led to famine, disease, and so- cial distress, compounded by the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars.Tambora’s dust veil is often blamed by modern researchers for the cold summer of 1816. The argument given is that the stratospheric dust veil would have absorbed or reflected solar radiation that could otherwise have reached the ground (42). Not all regions,however, experienced abnormally low temperatures, and the preceding winter had generally been mild. Therefore, a few researchers deny that there was any (or at least a strong) connection with the volcano (39,43).
I’m leaning towards the “few researchers” that deny a strong connection with Tambora. What other records do we have? Well, over at KNMI I find the record for Manchester, England:
Moving across the Atlantic, here’s the record from New Haven in Connecticut.
I’m just not feeling the Tambora love here … where are the records of years without a summer? Or at least of a summer that’s significantly colder than its neighbors?
Don’t get me wrong here. I suspect that generally, the summer of 1816 was a bit colder than most summers. But as the graphs above show, in all of these datasets there are comparable summers within a few decades either side of 1816 that have summers that are as cool, or cooler, than the summer of 1816.
And I would guess that a careful search would reveal some records with cooler summers than the ones I’ve found here. But overall, let me suggest that over the years the Tambora story has gotten greatly exaggerated, just as we do today with our stories of “Cold? You haven’t seen real cold. Why, when I was a young man it was so cold that …”
Conclusions? Well, my main conclusion is what I’ve been saying for some time. The temperature of the earth is not particularly ruled by the changes in how much energy it receives. Tambora cut off a huge amount of sunlight, but the effect was small. Yes, some areas had a summer that was a bit cooler than most summers. And I’m sure there were certain locations where it hit harder than others. But overall? The thermostatic mechanisms of the planet kept Tambora from having a much of a cooling effect.
My best to all. I append all of the figures below, with the dates, so you can see the lack of effect. Note that in many of them, the temperature in 1815 was about the same as 1816 … and that despite the size of the volcano, if there was any effect, it was totally gone by 1817.
If that’s what a really big volcano can do, I’m not impressed. Well, I am impressed, but what’s impressive is the strength of the thermostatic mechanisms that keep the earth’s temperature within a very narrow band. Even a huge volcano can’t put it out of sorts for much more than one summer, and even then not too much.
The place to look for the effect of volcanic eruptions on the climate is in food commodity prices. That is where climate change has its greatest impact on human society. In those records the Tambora eruption is unmissable.