The “Little Ice Age” During Early Colonial America

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Ice snow winter

The America that early European explorers and colonists found was a far different land than we know today.  Even only 150 years ago, the forests of Appalachia were far darker and home to an incredible number of exotic species whose days were numbered: The beautiful multi-color Carolina Parakeet, the Eastern Bison and the preying Eastern Mountain Lion (the fourth largest cat on the planet), all called the mountains of Southern Appalachia home before many of our ancestors arrived.

Indeed, the modern forests of today are almost unrecognizable compared to the majestic, dense and dark foggy woodlands that greeted the first white settlers only a handful of centuries ago.

The most notable change to the American continent, however, has far more to do with the weather than anything else.

For reasons largely unknown today, the planet experienced a period of drastic cooling from around 1500-1800s, creating a time period known as “The Little Ice Age”.

Several causes have been proposed: extreme lows in sun radiation, heightened volcanic activity, changes in ocean circulation and even variations in the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt have all been hypothesized.

Regardless of the reasoning, the days of early-European exploration of America were frigid and claimed the lives of a countless number of individuals.

In June 1608, Samuel Champlain reported bearing ice along the shores of Lake Superior.  That same year, both Native Americans and Europeans living in the Northeast suffered excessive mortality in Maine during the winter months, as did residents in Jamestown, Virginia.  Native Americans were forced to form leagues in response to food shortages.

The journal of Pierre de Troyes, who led an expedition to James Bay in 1686, recorded that the bay was still littered with so much floating ice that he could hide behind it in his canoe on 1 July.

This extreme cold continued for centuries and in the winter of 1780, New York Harbor froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan Island to Staten Island.

All of these weather patterns climaxed in what would become known as the “Year without a Summer” or “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”, 1816.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1816, residents of the eastern United States observed what they described as a persistent “dry fog,” which reddened and dimmed the sunlight.  The haze was so thick that individuals could actually stare at sunspots with the naked eye.

The first hint of extraordinary weather came on May 12, 1816, when a late spring cold wave breached the Appalachian Mountains, reaching as far south as Virginia – covering the ground in frost.

The cold weather briefly retreated for nearly a week, allowing farmers an opportunity to plant their crops as well as attempt to salvage those already damaged by the late frost.

Unfortunately, the warm weather was short-lived, as a second cold snap struck the eastern half of the United States, this time in the opening week of June.

One traveler passing through Pennsylvania wrote the following in his diary, “This morning was very frosty and ice covered the water ¼ inch thick. We had a brisk breeze from the northeast.” The following morning he penned, “A severe frost attended this morning.”

Hours later, on June 6, 1816, residents of Albany, New York, were shocked to discover snow falling onto the ground.  Writing in his diary, New Lebanon, New York, resident Nicholas Bennet wrote “all was froze…  and the hills were barren like winter.”

According to historian William G. Atkins, temperatures went below freezing almost every day in May and the ground froze solid on June 9.

Atkins went on to write, “Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7th and 8th snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots …. In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting. Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food. It must be remembered that the granaries of the great West had not then been opened to us by railroad communication, and people were obliged to rely upon their own resources or upon others in their immediate locality.”

In July and August, lake and river ice was observed as far south as Pennsylvania. Frost was reported as far south as Virginia on August 20th and 21st.

Rapid, dramatic temperature swings were common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures as high as 95 °F to near-freezing within hours.

On September 13, a Virginia newspaper reported that corn crops would be up to two-thirds short, complaining that “the cold as well as the drought has nipt the buds of hope”.

Another Virginia article complained, “It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer. Easterly winds have prevailed for nearly three months past… the sun during that time has generally been obscured and the sky overcast with clouds; the air has been damp and uncomfortable, and frequently so chilling as to render the fireside a desirable retreat.”

At the time, little explanation could be summoned to explain the severe cold, though it was subsequently learned that a year earlier, in April 1815, one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded human history occurred on the other side of the globe in Indonesia.  Weather historians are typically in agreement that the eruption is to be blamed for the “Year Without a Summer.”

In the decades that followed “The Year Without a Summer”, temperatures gradually began to warm and just as mysterious as it arrived, the “Little Ice Age” disappeared.

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