1816/2016: Cruel Summers

The month of May in 1816 was marked by unseasonably cold weather in North America and Europe. Snow still lingered on the ground in Quebec and New York, and cold fronts on May 14 and 28 brought frost from Canada to Tennessee and Virginia, killing many of the early crops. Across the Atlantic, the cold and snow of winter continued, pummeling Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s carriage as they traveled to Lake Geneva, where Godwin (later Mary Shelley) would write the first draft of Frankenstein.

No one knew it yet, but the chilly May weather was not just a fluke. The pattern would continue through the coming months, drenching Britain and Europe in rain, leaving North America cold and parched, and destroying crops on both continents. 1816 would go down in history as “the year without a summer,” or, as the hardy New Englanders would come to call it, “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.”[1]

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The month of May in 2016 has been characterized by dangerous climatic activity of other kinds. India is in the midst of a heat wave which has broken records, melted roads, and killed hundreds of people. Water is in short supply, and little relief can be expected until the monsoon season begins in June. Halfway across the globe in Alberta, Canada, wildfires have forced tens of thousands to evacuate their homes. Thousands of buildings have been destroyed, and the air quality of the region has become dangerously smoky. An unusually warm and dry winter this year made Alberta particularly vulnerable to a large, fast-moving blaze that swept through about 1.25 million acres in three weeks.

Meanwhile, the NOAA reports that monthly global temperatures continue to soar: this April was the hottest April since records began in 1880, and the twelfth month in a row to break the record. 2016 just might go down in history as the year without a winter.

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In 1816, the bizarre weather hit the poor hardest. Frost and excessive rain in England ruined large percentages of the crops, leading to soaring grain prices and civil unrest. In Ireland, a failed harvest and typhus epidemic that lasted well into 1817 killed tens of thousands. In Switzerland, thousands of famished peasants took to the highways in search of sustenance. In the United States, a steady stream of New Englanders headed south and west in search of a fairer climate. A season that was unpleasant for the landlord class and political elites was disastrous for the poor farmers whose crops failed, and for the laborers who could no longer afford bread and milk.

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Unsurprisingly, the same is true today: climate change hits the global poor the hardest. In India this year, the heat wave has driven thousands of subsistence farmers to the cities in search of alternative work. In Louisiana, the Native American inhabitants of Isle de Jean Charles are being relocated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. More than 90% of the island’s land mass has been submerged or swept away since 1955, and the remaining occupants have been called the first American climate refugees. Experts see Isle de Jean Charles as a bellwether for much larger populations of future climate refugees, possibly including residents of South Florida. In Zimbabwe, extreme drought has caused maize shortages and an increased need for food aid. Ethiopia’s year-long drought has been followed by flood-producing rains, leading to widespread food insecurity and displacing thousands.

Meanwhile, Republican presumptive presidential nominee and self-professed “not a big believer in man-made climate change” Donald Trump has applied to build a sea wall to protect his County Clare, Ireland, golf course. His company cited sea level rise due to climate change in its permit request. So I guess climate change affects the rich too.

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Commentators in 1816 didn’t know what caused the cold, unfruitful summer. Some blamed sun spots; others blamed deforestation; still others believed the world was ending. What they didn’t realize was that a major volcanic eruption in Indonesia the prior year was the true cause of the strange weather. In April of 1816, Mount Tambora unleashed a violent cascade of lava, ash, and dust. It flattened the village at its base, rained ash on villages a hundred miles away, and left much of Indonesia a desolate wasteland. Those who survived the eruption were faced with famine, poisoned water, and disease in its aftermath, and nearly 90,000 people died.

The eruption released 55 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, where a chemical reaction converted it into droplets of sulfuric acid. Within a few weeks, a thin cloud of sulfuric particles covered the whole earth. There they lingered, reflecting solar energy back into space, blanketing a cooling globe for many months to come.

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We know what’s causing the heat and extreme weather today. It’s an El Niño year, yes. It’s also the carbon dioxide emissions from our cars, and the methane emissions from the livestock we eat, and the nitrous oxide emissions from our agricultural fertilizers, and the coal and oil and natural gas we burn for energy, and the vast expanses where carbon-eating forests used to be before we cut them down. It’s not a mystery this time.

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a novel about ethical responsibility and unintended consequences, consequences which fall hardest on innocents like Victor Frankenstein’s little brother William or the family’s servant Justine. It’s about Victor’s (largely failed) attempts to take responsibility for his creation, and to be responsible to his creation, the monster who is at once victim and perpetrator. The novel’s final, climactic moments famously take place in the icy waters of the Arctic, where the life ebbs out of Frankenstein and the creature visits his corpse aboard a ship bound for the North Pole.

When Captain Walton, the novel’s frame narrator, finds the creature hovering over Frankenstein’s lifeless body, mourning his creator, he says, “’Wretch!… it is well that you come here to whine over the desolation that you have made. You throw a torch into a pile of buildings; and when they are consumed you sit among the ruins and lament the fall.” It is an accusation against the monster, but might equally well apply to Frankenstein himself, whose actions repeatedly amount to careless destruction and fruitless lamentation.

It might apply to us too, as we mourn with the victims of droughts and wildfires yet continue to throw torches into the atmosphere. In her article “Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change,” Elizabeth Kolbert points out that it might seem unseemly to bring up environmental politics in the midst of human tragedy. “But to fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offense,” she writes:

We are all consumers of oil, not to mention coal and natural gas, which means that we’ve all contributed to the latest inferno. We need to own up to our responsibility, and then we need to do something about it. The fire next time is one that we’ve been warned about, and that we’ve all had a hand in starting.

Like Frankenstein, we can’t absolve ourselves of responsibility for the monster we’ve collectively created. From one catastrophic year to another, a message resonates: it’s long past time to be responsible to and for each other.

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[1] All information about the Year Without a Summer drawn from William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman’s The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013).

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