Monday, 18 July 2011

1816- the year of zero summer as reported in Staffordshire

We have just passed St Swithin’s Day and as it rained that day the tradition has held and we have had a few wet days. We might grumble about the weather but imagine a year without summer. It did happen in 1816. The year previously there had been a calamitous explosion when the top of Tambora a volcano in Indonesia blew off.. Large amounts of ash and debris were thrown 140,000 feet into the upper atmosphere.

This coincided with low solar activity rapidly cooling the planet. In Britain heavy snow fell in May. And in the summer rain fell continuously for 60 days.

The local paper the Staffordshire Advertiser reported on the 29th June on a " Tremendous thunderstorm accompanied with heavy rain for several hours visited the county, at Leek the hailstones were of uncommon size and measuring 3 inches across and lying in such qualities on the ground for several hours. Lightening killed a cow belonging to Mr Collier of Caverswall. In Stone the streets were under 4 feet of water"
It eventually dawned on the journalists that the weather experienced in Staffordshire was being experienced elsewhere. It snowed in Quebec and New York in July. In France the River Seine had risen 8 feet in a matter of days. The Rhine broke its banks.

In Britain, there were near-total crop failures in some areas. In Staffordshire haymakers found themselves out of work in large numbers "depressing to see many seeking shelter under hedges", and added to the soldiers who had been demobbed after the end of the Napleonic Wars. Rioting broke out in Sheffield, East Anglia and Nottinghamshire. It was the worst famine of the 19th century.

There was an important cultural by product. In Switzerland the "incessant rainfall" during that "wet, ungenial summer" forced Mary Shelley and her friends to stay indoors. They decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story, leading Shelley to write Frankenstein.

Will global warming will increase the frequency of extreme weather? It seems likely and the trends are clear. Climate change makes exceptional weather more likely.