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Climate history is the study of how and why climate – that is, long-term weather behavior – has changed across time. Climate history is valuable simply in terms of understanding how the world works and how people of the past experienced it. But climate history has become even more important since humans have realized that our production of greenhouses gases is itself contributing to climate change. It has become crucial to know what past climates were like so we can better interpret the climate of today.
Scientists have developed a lot of ways of finding out about past climates. They study tree rings, for example, to compare year-by-year growth, which is a reflection of climate. They have examined gas bubbles in ice-core samples from Antarctica to create a climate portrait that, amazingly, goes back almost one million years.
But more traditional historical sources can also yield information about climate history. Medieval European winemakers meticulously documented when their harvests occurred. Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade posts maintained records of when ice broke up and set in. Documentary sources such as these can uncover fluctuations in climate. And they have one great advantage over sources such as ice cores and tree rings: they help us learn how humans experienced climate.
The Year Without a Summer was a short-term phenomenon, so it is fair to say that it concerns weather more than it does climate. But because people were talking about the weather so much in 1816 (and 1817) – even more than usual – and figuring out how to deal with it, the event offers a chance to witness how Canadians of the past experienced weather and what they expected of the Canadian climate. More than that, it offers broader insights into Canadian society of the time: how people obtained food; what they knew about farming what was, for many, still a New World; how the poor were treated, and how that was starting to change; and the ways in which their society was less and more resilient than ours is today.
Navigating the Site
The various sections of “Canada’s Year Without a Summer” can be found as links on the top right-hand side of this page.
We have purposely not given you much information about the Year Without a Summer or Canada’s experience of it — we want you to determine that yourself by your reading of the primary sources. (Oh all right: go read about the Year Without a Summer on Wikipedia if you want; we’ll wait.)
Primary sources are sources created at the the historical time period being studied. Newspapers, diaries, letters, photographs are examples of primary sources. (Secondary sources, by contrast, are made after the fact about the period being studied. History textbooks, obituaries, and memoirs are examples of sources that look back on a previous time.)
We have assembled 120+ primary sources: newspaper articles, government records, and diaries entries. They are organized in two ways.
“Sources by Date” is a chronological listing of all sources by the date that they were written. Please note that this may differ from the date of publication: if a newspaper article was written on 1 July but not published until 30 July, it will be listed as 1 July. “Sources by Date” can help you determine an overall story of what happened across Eastern Canada. Each source is displayed here as a thumbnail image with a brief description and date. Clicking on the thumbnail yields a high-resolution image of the article, if available, and an abridged transcript. (A hint: since we tended to transcribe the material related to weather, farming, food, distress, and charity, you should get a sense of what topics we think are important about Canada’s Year Without a Summer.) To return to “Sources by Date,” click on the “Go Back” button below each source.
“Sources by Creator” is a listing of all sources by who made them. (Please note that if, for example, the New Brunswick Courier reprinted an article from the New Brunswick Gazette, we have listed the creator as the Courier, because it was our source for the material, and there may be no copy of the Gazette still in existence.) It is worth searching here if you are interested in how a specific city or colony experienced Canada’s Year Without a Summer, or if you want to observe how a single diarist or newspaper described it. To return to “Sources by Creator,” click on the “Go Back” button below each source.
In the near future, we hope to add the ability to search by keywords and tags so check back soon.
If you have any comments, questions, or concerns, contact us.
Questions to Ask When Reading
Primary sources are the atoms of history, the tiny, individual building blocks from which history is constructed. When reading through the sources, on the way to building your own history of Canada’s Year Without a Summer, consider some of the following questions:
- How is the weather’s occurrence described? Would it be described differently today?
- How is the weather’s effects described? What was considered worth mentioning? Would the effects be described differently today?
- How was the unusual weather of 1816 explained?
- What constituted good weather and bad weather?
- How did different people experience the weather differently? Did rich and poor experience weather differently? Urban and rural? French-Canadian and English-Canadian? Did the different colonies experience the weather differently or did they receive different weather – or both?
- How did the weather affect crops and livestock? How did farmers respond? What lessons about farming did people take from the 1816 weather’s effects?
- How did the weather affect the availability and price of food? What lessons about food did people take from the 1816 weather’s effects?
- There is a lot of discussion of “distress.” What kinds of distress were experienced? To what extent was the weather blamed? What other factors, if any, were believed to have played a part?
- What kinds of charity were those in distress given? What were they expected to do in return? Were they treated differently than the regular poor because they were seen as victims of a natural disaster?
- Is there evidence that the nature of charity was changing in this period?
- In what ways was this society less resilient than ours to the weather? In what ways was it more resilient?
- What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your reading?
- Did Canada have a “year without a summer”? If not, what would be a more appropriate name for this event?
If you are interested in learning more about the Tambora eruption and Canada’s Year Without a Summer, here are some good places to start.
Boyde Beck, “Season of Scarcity,” The Island Magazine, Fall/Winter 1994, 20-23.
The effects of the year without a summer on Prince Edward Island.
Paul Butler, “Winter of the Rals,” Canada’s History, 91 no.3 (June/July 2011), 42-45.
On Newfoundland’s 1817 winter.
Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
A provocative new examination of Tambora’s global effects.
Teresa Devor, “The Explanatory Power of Climate History for the 19th-Century Maritimes and Newfoundland: A Prospectus,” Acadiensis Vol.43 no.2 (Summer/Autumn 2014), 57-78.
A great, recent exploration of early 19th century Atlantic Canada climate history.
Judith Fingard, “The Winter’s Tale: The Seasonal Contours of Pre-Industrial Poverty in British North America, 1815-1860,” Historical Papers / Communications historiques, vol.9 no.1 (1974), 65-94.
Useful article on how British North Americans dealt with cold, poverty, and charity.
C.R. Harington, ed., The Year Without a Summer? World Climate in 1816 (Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Nature, 1992)
A central text: climatologists explore the global effects of Tambora’s eruption. Many Canadian authors and Canadian case studies.
Great introduction to the study of climate history.
William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman, The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013).
A good book on 1816 in the U.S. especially.
Joshua MacFadyen, “Cold Comfort: A History of Firewood, Ice Storms, and Hypothermia in Canada,” NiCHE website, January 2014.
Wet sticks and chill. Sorry.
Liza Piper, “Colloquial Meteorology,” Method and Meaning in Canadian Environmental History, eds. Alan MacEachern and William J. Turkel (Toronto: Nelson, 2009), 102-23.
A great article on why and how to study climate history. Well-edited, too.
John D. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
A classic on how the weather led to bad harvests, food shortages, and societal disruption in Europe in particular.