The Year without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman

The Year without Summer: 1816

This volcanic explosion was worse than Vesuvius, Mount St. Helens, or Krakatoa. When Mount Tambora exploded in Indonesia in 1815, it started a chain of events that would alter the course of global history. In the Klingamans’ The Year without Summer, the authors detail how the resulting clouds of ash led to disastrous weather conditions which affected communities’ histories around the world… and led to the birth of Frankenstein.

The book begins with the eruption’s immediate effects in Indonesia. An estimated 12,000 Tambora natives would have died within the first 24 hours, “mostly from ash falls and pyroclastic flows—rapidly moving streams of partially liquefied rock and superheated gas at temperatures up to 1,000 degrees….” But it wasn’t over. Flooding and ash-poisoned water and air would eventually kill seventy to eighty thousand people in Indonesia.

Fifty-five million tons of sulfur-dioxide gas were thrown into the stratosphere, more than twenty miles into the air. As it spread out, it left a veil of fine sulfur particles that would reflect sunlight and cool temperatures around the world. After laying out the science, the authors move on to what happened to some of the communities who were forced to deal with ruined crops. They include personal observations from many famous folk as well as newspaper accounts. These details focus on North America and Northern Europe, as the authors discuss how ruined harvests led to the “Ohio fever” wave of migration and how typhus as well as revolution followed in Ireland.

Our local area did not escape the effects of the volcano. The Commonwealth of Virginia experienced a June frost in 1816. In a Richmond paper, farmers were urged to not sell their grain out of state unless their neighbors had dire need. Presidents Madison and Jefferson noted the peculiar weather—coldness accompanied by drought. The drought would be relieved by a heavy rainstorm on September 6 which left much of Tidewater Virginia underwater.

Meanwhile, a group of literary geniuses, several on the run from scandal, were touring Europe. “An almost perpetual rain” and thunderstorms “grander and more terrific than any I have seen before” caused them to hole up indoors. They shared old ghost stories, wrote new ones, and discussed scientific principles of animating the flesh. These extreme circumstances led to some of Lord Byron’s darkest and most intriguing poetry, which is quoted throughout the book, and they also helped Mary Godwin (later Shelley) create Frankenstein. Dr. Polidori, who was part of the group but shoved out of their circle, went on to write "The Vampyre" which served as an inspiration decades later for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Incidentally, Polidori's vampire bore a remarkable resemblence to Lord Byron.

The Year without Summer is a wide-ranging volume which should appeal to fans of history and English literature. Once the scientific explanations are presented, it becomes much more anecdotal, switching back and forth through the seasons' passing between key players and places showing the very human effects of a grand geologic event.