When Summer Forgot Boston

Snow in June? It happened 200 years ago, freaking out New Englanders and paving the way for modern meteorology.

boston snow summer

Illustration by Chris Gash

If 60-degree winter days and spring snow showers spooked you this year, thank the heavens you weren’t around two centuries earlier. On June 6, 1816, snow fell across New England, coating Boston streets. July and August were likewise punctuated by weeklong cold snaps and erratic temperature swings, from triple-digit highs to near-freezing lows.

In the age before the Weather Channel, what came to be known as “The Year Without Summer” baffled our ancestors. Some posited that Ben Franklin’s newfangled lightning rods had disrupted Earth’s thermostat. Others pinned the blame on deforestation, convinced that the planet’s heat had leaked into outer space. And, of course, some saw the hand of God at play.

“On Cape Cod the following year, there’s a beginning of a religious revival,” says professor Robert Allison, chair of Suffolk University’s history department. “The first real tourists are people coming for these religious revivals.”

Most people believe the actual culprit was the 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora—a cataclysmic event that killed nearly 100,000 people and spewed so much ash and sulfuric acid into the sky that the region reportedly fell dark for three straight days. As the volcano’s payload settled into the atmosphere, the sun dulled around the world. Even from 10,000 miles away, the folks of Boston took note. “The sun’s rays, it has been frequently remarked, have not their usual power,” wrote the editor of Boston’s Columbian Centinel in July 1816.

The acute effects were disastrous: Crops took a beating, grain prices soared, and many New England farmers emigrated west, worried that if summer didn’t arrive the following year, their livelihood would be destroyed. But for the most part, according to Allison, the long-term consequences of the anomalous season were minimal—maybe even beneficial.

“In one way, modern meteorology stems from this,” Allison says, noting that federal officials began recording temperatures three times a day that summer. “Now we have such a bizarre way of getting obsessed about the weather. Can you imagine what our forecasters would do in a case like this—snow in June? It would be the end of the world.”