McCallum: Extreme Weather

Jun 13, 2017

Never mind that the snows had melted and the first green spears of new growth had pushed up to announce spring’s arrival. For weeks the entire state of Vermont had been held in the messy grip of an extended cold and rainy season.

Farmers couldn’t plant, new shrubs and ornamental bushes hadn’t arrived in regional nurseries and gardeners hesitated to put in tender vegetables without sufficient sun to nourish them. Since March, only a mere handful of days had been hot enough to merit turning on a fan.

Summer clothes languished in their storage boxes and the only thing that seemed to be thriving was the lawn. An established pattern emerged of a week of rain, capped with frenzied mowing, bookended with another week of rain.

Then, just as it looked as if the rain would last forever, record breaking heat arrived, reminding us of predictions that the summer of 2017 will join preceding years with extremely high temperatures and the attendant increase in the threat of forest fires.

But at least we won’t have to worry about six inches of snow in June or donning coats and mittens on the Fourth of July - as happened to New Englanders in 1816, remembered as the year without a summer and memorialized as Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.

Every month brought a hard frost, ice formed on the borders of rivers in July and widespread crop failure led to a season of poverty and hardship. Surrounded by mountains still crowned with snow, Vermont farmers who had shorn their sheep were forced to watch their flocks suffer from the cold and die. Hungry settlers ate nettles, wild turnips, raccoons and pigeons.

Science now suggests that summer’s plummeting global temperatures were triggered by the largest volcanic event in human history. A massive eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Dutch East Indies in 1815 spewed dust, ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere - drastically altering climate worldwide and causing widespread agricultural collapse. Diary entries and newspaper accounts of the day are full of stories describing how the weather circumscribed the lives of all Vermonters.

It’s a cautionary tale that in the face of mounting evidence of rapid climate change today, extreme weather events may force us, too, to adapt - or suffer the consequences.