The year without a summer


Ah… that’s more like it. God has turned on the air conditioning again in Minnesota. Sitting at 20 Prospect Jr.’s baseball practice last night, the wind was snapping at me like an unfriendly dog. This is the kind of spring we are used to. Dry, raw, whipping across the prairie, trying to push us all back to where we came from. A reminder that the great plains were not meant for human habitation.

My time in Philadelphia this week reminded me just how much I miss topography. Not that Minnesota is pan flat like central Illinois, but what hills we have are few and far between. Being some place where civilization is forced to follow the contour of the land reminded me just how much we take our conquering of nature for granted. Aside from the time it takes me to commute to work, very little in my day to day life is determined by nature.

Watching the news about the volcanic eruption in Iceland shutting down air travel across Northern Europe is another reminder that it doesn’t take nature much effort to re-assert her dominance on our affairs. In my endless reading, and collecting the flotsam and jetsam of obscure information, I came across the story of the year without a summer.

In 1815 a series of major volcanic eruptions, including the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, put enough dust into the upper atmosphere to effect the weather all around the world. Summer of 1816 was the coldest on record in many places. It the northeast United States, snow was recorded in the month of June. Lake and river ice was observed in July and August as far south as Pennsylvania. The cold weather and reduced sunlight led to crop failures. In a day and age where the United States and Europe were still agrarian cultures, famine was widespread.

The summer of 1816 really kick started the Western migration in the U.S. as New England farmers who were wiped out decided to pick up and move to more fertile soil in Western New York. It was a big part of the reason that Joseph Ellicott was doing a “land office business” from his little stone building on the banks of the muddy Tonawanda. Funny how a volcano in Indonesia leads to the buildup and settlement of good ol’ Batavia N.Y.

As I usually do after looking into events that occurred in the distant past, I turn around and project them into the future and wonder “what if?”. In this day of overheated discourse on global warming, it’s odd to think that a big volcanic event might have quite the opposite effect, resulting in a much more rapid change in weather patterns. As always, we’ll adapt and roll with what nature throws our way. Floods, Plague, Pestilence, Locusts? Bring ‘em on. Just not during baseball practice.

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