Summer arrives in glorious fashion this year at 6:34 Monday afternoon. A high in the low 80s is expected for the day, and like every year, these balmy temperatures help to melt frigid memories of another north country winter past.
As novelist Henry James wrote, “Summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
But the arrival of summer, as much as it’s anticipated in these northern climes, shouldn’t be taken as a 100 percent guarantee. We may have paused to wonder this year, especially on June 8, when snow was forecast for the Adirondacks. That particular forecast played it too cool. On the morning of June 9, a National Weather Service meteorologist said there were no confirmed reports of snow in the mountains.
“History tells us that having a little snowfall on the summits this time of year is uncommon, but not unheard of,” said Andy Nash, meteorologist in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service in Burlington, Vt.
There have been other times when the chill of June provided no solace before summer solstice.
The Northeast Regional Climate Center based at Cornell University, Ithaca, began recording weather data for Watertown in 1893. Its records show that the coldest summer since then was 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit in 1992, about 3 degrees below normal.
A center climatologist said the coldest temperature in Watertown for a meteorological summer — June, July and August — was 30 degrees on June 1, 1945.
Two hundred years ago — a blip on the timeline of modern history — summer did not arrive here in any month, stunning people and stunting crops.
People called 1816 “Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-To Death” and many thought the end of the world was at hand. Its cause, the eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, wouldn’t be discovered by scientists until several decades later. The eruption, in April of 1815, killed nearly 100,000 people directly and indirectly.
The volcano blew ash into the outer atmosphere, altering the weather worldwide for months as sulfurous airborne particles reflected sunlight and cooled the globe.
“The troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere where we live and most weather occurs, extends 4 to 12 miles up,” said Jessica Spaccio, climatologist at the regional climate center. “Ash went beyond this level into the stratosphere, where it could travel more easily.”
Ms. Spaccio said the 1816 low temperatures were most extreme in Europe and North America, not worldwide. Records show the average temperature drop around the globe was less than 1.4 degrees.
‘call the neighbors’
In the north country, there was a frost each month of the growing season in 1816. Snow was ankle deep in Lewis County in June. Times’ files show that a farmer in Vermont froze to death in a June 17 snowstorm when he went out to check on sheep in his back pasture and couldn’t find his way back due to the blinding snow.
His last words to his family: “If I’m not back in an hour, call the neighbors and start them after me.”
The good neighbors were summoned. The farmer was found three days later, frozen in his field.
In St. Lawrence County, an early settler of Hopkinton, Artemus Kent, recorded the weather of the summer of 1816 in his diary. He wasn’t surprised to find nearly 3 feet of snow in his nearby woods in March.
But April snows worried him. By May 15, he recorded three hard frosts.
On May 23, he wrote, “Many people are out of provisions of nearly every kind. Though flour begins to come from the westward, money is so scarce and the prices so high that it is impossible for poor people to buy it.”
Other diary entries:
June 6: “Snowed from early morning until 1 p.m.”
June 8: “Snowed till 9 a.m. Melancholy aspect.”
June 14: “It has frozen every night since June came in.”
July 11: “All crops are backward and promise but little.”
Aug. 4: “Vines and even corn in some places are ruined.”
Sept. 1: “People have been reduced almost to a state of starvation and now have little prospects.”
Oct. 17: “Snow fell eight inches.”
The year without a summer was too much for many residents of the Northeast, and they sought greener pastures. “(It) contributed materially to the great migration from New England to the Middle West that began the following year,” the Baltimore Sun reported in 1940.
It can’t be said when the next devastating volcano will erupt, risking another year without a summer. But author and climate expert Bill McKibben, Johnsburg, a well-known Warren County writer, says we perhaps should be worrying about the opposite.
“Humans are volcanoes of a sort, but the gases we spew trap heat instead of deflecting it,” Mr. McKibben wrote in response to questions from the Times.
Mr. McKibben’s 1989 book “The End of Nature” is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change. He was among the first to draw attention to the threat of global warming. On July 30, the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, Hamilton County, will honor him with its 2016 Harold K. Hochschild Award.
“We could, of course, have a temporary cold spell if a bunch of volcanoes went off at once, and it would be nasty,” Mr. McKibben wrote. “But we just basically had a year without a winter, and we can plan on a lot more of those — with cumulative effects that dwarf what happened 200 years ago.”
If another similar environmental disaster did strike, one can bet that today’s reaction would be more than the “melancholy aspect” recorded by diarist Mr. Kent.
“There would be worldwide panic, which would be one of the big dangers,” said Curt Stager, an ecologist and paleoclimatologist who is a professor at Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smiths, Franklin County.
The panic, he said, would be aided by today’s 24-hour news cycle.
“Nowadays, we live vicariously through the trauma of others,” he said.
In 2011, Mr. Stager, whose “Natural Selections” program is heard on North Country Public Radio, authored the book “Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth,” published by St. Martin’s Press. In it, Mr. Stager looks at climate and its long-term patterns.
“It’s easy to forget that this is not the end of history,” Mr. Stager said in a telephone interview. “We’re on a timeline in just one slice of it. There’s a future ahead, and geology plays out in that timeline. It’s not a question of if, but when, an active volcano goes off again.”
He recalled the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, which paralyzed air travel.
“It’s tempting sometime that when we have a natural disaster to think, ‘It’s nothing we could have foreseen, or it’s punishment from above,’ or something like that,” Mr. Stager said. “It’s really hard to prepare for it because you don’t know when or where it’s going to happen. The effects will depend on what our culture is like.”
‘spotting’ a danger
In the immediate years following the 1816 “year without a summer,” many were left scratching their heads as to its causes before scientists finally found it. But many had blamed sun spots. Extremely large ones were reported in 1816.
Sun spots can lead to geomagnetic storms caused by “coronal mass ejections.” The last whopper of a geomagnetic storm hit Earth in 1859, according to National Geographic.
“The geomagnetic disturbances were strong enough that U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment,” the magazine reported in a 2011 article.
“It didn’t hurt us because we didn’t have an electronic network at the time,” Mr. Stager said.
But if such a solar storm happened today, the effects would, no doubt, leave us cold.