Quebec Gazette, 6 June 1816.
Quebec Gazette, 6 June 1816.

Canada’s Year Without a Summer

More Extraordinary Weather – From 11 o’clock till half past 12, this day,
the 6th June, there has been an uninterrupted fall of Snow in this City.
~ Quebec Gazette, 6 June 1816.

2016 marks the 200th anniversary of what became known as “The Year Without a Summer.” So, happy anniversary. The Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted in 1815, by far the largest eruption in recorded history, and spewed tens of cubic kilometres of ash and dust high into the air. The aerosols spread throughout the global atmosphere, letting less sunlight reach the earth, and cooling the planet’s surface measurably. Eastern North America, for one, experienced intense bouts of cold weather in 1816. But because eastern Canada did not receive the worst of this cold – and maybe because we expect Canada to be cold – the year has not been thought to be particularly harsh here.

But in researching Canada’s Year Without a Summer for an article in Canada’s History magazine, Alan found a different story, and a richer one: one not only about bad weather, but also about food, farming, and charity in early Canada. Alan found – well, who cares what he found? Ok, Alan does, but he’s already written that story, and it’ll appear in the June/July 2016 issue of Canada’s History. (And, thanks to the magazine, it’ll be available free on this site then, too. Thanks, magazine!)

[Updated: As promised, here is “The Big Chill,” my Canada’s History article.]

The greatest thing about history this millennium is that everybody can locate, copy, and share historical sources from the past. Previously, historians would dig up sources, describe them, and tell you what they meant. Admittedly, we still do that. But now everybody can dig up sources for themselves, they can demand that historians show their sources, they can deduce their own meanings, they can gain a more direct experience of the past, and they can show everyone else what they uncovered.

We’ve built this site to share – and to gather – sources that seem relevant to Canada’s Year Without a Summer. We’ve scanned and put on the site 120+ newspaper articles, diary entries, and government sources from the time. Trust us, there has never before been a more extensive, one-stop-shopping primary source collection of yearwithoutasummeriana (that may not actually be a word). And we hope that’s just the beginning: we hope others will provide other sources that they find and think relevant.

We have provided abridged transcripts for our 120+ sources, because they can be hard to read, but otherwise there’s no editorializing on our part. It’s up to you to decide which sources have meaning and what those meanings are. Our goal is to get people – you know, people: students, history nerds, weather geeks, Canadians, online trolls, everybody – interested in climate history. In how climate and weather affected life in the past. In how historical sources are used to give us baseline data as evidence for climate change (That’s right: climate change! And the online trolls are off!) In what past responses to extreme weather events might tell us about how we will face and respond to climate change.

Teachers! Have students unpack one source or read a whole bunch to decide what happened. We’ve offered some suggested questions and further reading.

Weather geeks! History nerds! History nerds, meet weather geeks. Weather geeks, history nerds. You really should get to know each other.

Online trolls! Seriously, play nice.

Everybody! The 120+ sources we’ve posted just scratch the surface of potentially relevant sources from the time. If you come across one we missed – a diary at a local archives? an 1816 newspaper? your living, 211-year-old great-great-great-great grandfather? – let us know and, if possible, photograph it, send it on to us, and we will add it to the site and give you a cut of our profits (ie, nothing). And if/when you come up with a good interpretation – of 1 source or many, of how your city or province experienced 1816-17, or whatever – we’ll post that too.

Happy history hunting.

Alan MacEachern and  Michael O’Hagan
Dept. of History, University of Western Ontario

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  1. Colin Coates pointed us to a great source, assessing the condition of Lower Canada parishes in Feb 1816. We’ve posted it here — — and created a Google map of those assessments —

    At least 2 things of note:
    *How vulnerable many of the people of Lower Canada were ENTERING the year without a summer.
    *That it is difficult to imagine the vulnerability being related solely to climate. Look on the map at how, on the whole, parishes close to the towns of Quebec and especially Montreal are doing ok, whereas those on the periphery are suffering.

  2. Last year I was asked to teach a class about the Year without Summer as a turning point in history for fourth year undergraduate history students at the Australian National University. I was interested in the event because its impact was so insidious and so diverse – droughts, floods, extreme cold – as well as for the mystique which surrounds the Year. Very little research has been done into the impact in the Southern Hemisphere (further research opportunity?). I enjoyed Gillan D’Arcy Wood’s history but I also wanted the students to analyse some primary source material. I was thrilled when I discovered this site. The range of sources – diaries, newspaper articles and government documents – provided a breadth of perspective which raised useful questions about the way climate events are perceived, experienced and reported, about differing impacts at local levels and about differing vulnerabilities. I think this was the student’s first foray into Canadian history! Thank you Alan MacEachern and Michael O’Hagan for generously sharing your work with the global environmental history world.

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