Story Behind the Numbers: The Year 1816

Economic historians Richard Sutch and Susan Carter remember 1816, known as the year without a summer. Ash from a huge Indonesian volcanic explosion circled the globe, lowering temperatures and killing crops.

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Bruce Stutz isn't the first person in history to chase after spring.

Professor RICHARD SUTCH (Economics, University of California, Riverside): We may think that the weather is kicking us around today, but it was really kicking around the world with a much heavier boot back in the past.

ELLIOTT: That's economic historian Richard Sutch. He and his wife Professor Susan Carter join us regularly to talk about statistics that tell the story of America. Our series is called the Story Behind the Number. Today, weather that has altered the course of American history, like the Dust Bowl storms of the 1930s or that year in New England known as Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death.

Professor SUTCH: The year 1816 was a year in which there was a year without a summer. It was so cold that crops didn't grow, grass didn't come up, people had to feed the corn they'd been saving for human consumption to keep their cattle alive, and one of the things that this did was it triggered migration out of New England, over the Appalachian Mountains, and into the newly opened Ohio Valley. And these were young people who left, leaving their parents behind.

ELLIOTT: What happened? What caused the summer to not happen?

Professor SUSAN CARTER (Economics, University of California, Riverside): Oh, it's the explosion of Mount Tambora half a hemisphere away out in Eastern Java, and this was a volcano that spewed ash and smoke more than five or six times the level of the much more well known Krakatoa, which exploded in the latter part of the 19th century. And Krakatoa we know affected sunrises from around the world. But the Tambora explosion altered the weather, altered the ability to grow crops from around the world.

ELLIOTT: What do we see in the numbers?

Professor SUTCH: We have annual estimates of the temperature and the precipitation in a number of sites around the country, and one of the them was New Haven, Connecticut. And so you can see, by looking at a long, 200-year period of temperature history, you can see how anomalous this particular period in New England history was. It was just a freak of nature, so to speak, that you had such a dramatic, volcanic eruption that affected the weather in one summer that was in the middle of a period of drought which made it, of course, much worse.

ELLIOTT: Richard Sutch and Susan Carter are editors of the Historical Statistics of the United States.

Thanks again for sharing with us.

Professor CARTER: Thank you, Debbie.

Professor SUTCH: Our pleasure.

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