ITHACA, N.Y. — Do a poll of your friends – who was excited about that snow earlier this week? Go on, count them. Safe bet to say, it won’t take too long now that it’s April.
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The staff at the Climate Prediction Center probably won’t warm your heart either. Below normal temperatures are expected to be the norm this April, although the seasonal output (April-May-June) still calls for above normal temps. Hopefully, that gets you through Saturday’s snowflakes.
Could it be worse? Oh yes, yes indeed. So, for a little lighter fare this Friday, we decided to dig into the history books and do a little reading about Ithaca’s “Year Without A Summer” – 1816, exactly 200 years ago. When Tompkins County was still in the planning phases, Ithaca was but a little burg, and much of the towns’ lands were still being farmed, sold or traded by veterans of the Revolutionary War.
So, another thought exercise – what’s the latest snow or earliest snow you can remember in your time in Ithaca (be it one year or fifty)? Climate records at the Northeast Regional Climate Center on Cornell’s campus says the last time there was measurable snow in May, it was 1977 (there was, however, a dusting in 2010), and the earliest ever is October 11th, back in 1906. In Cornell’s 122 year-record of the local climate, measurable snow only happened from May to September only about a dozen times, about once a decade on average. On four of those occasions (1907, 1908, 1966, 1977), it was greater than an inch, and all those instances occurred in May.
In the late 1920s and mid 1930s, there are recordings of snowflakes in the air during June, July and August, but otherwise our summer months have thankfully been spared from Jack Frost’s fine art.
What makes 1816 special, or scary depending on your view, was that winter never quite ended. For much of the Northeast, temperatures routinely dropped below freezing. On June 6th, a snowstorm dropped accumulating snows as far south as central Pennsylvania; the further northeast one went, the worse the depth, up to 18″ in Vermont. Although 200-year old records aren’t easy to come by, contemporary observations suggest it was quite a roller coaster – suburban Boston went from 90 degrees at 3 PM on the 5th, to 43 degrees at 3 PM on the 6th.
Things didn’t get better from there – lake and river ice was reported in northern Pennsylvania in July and August, and hard frosts were recorded in late August throughout the Northeast. Overall, temperatures are estimated to have been 3-5 degrees F below normal. As one might imagine, none of this was good for the growing season. Crop destruction was widespread, prices for food stuffs skyrocketed, and famine was common.
1816 was an extreme year for a non-weather, non-human, non-divine entity reason – there was a massive volcanic eruption the previous year, after several smaller eruptions earlier in the decade. Collectively, the aerosol haze that they launched sky-high circulated around the globe like a stratospheric fog, reflecting sunlight back into space before settling out of the atmosphere. It’s the same reason some folks put reflective sunscreens in their car windshields – the more sunlight reflected, the less absorbed, the cooler the temperature.
A much weaker effect was seen in 1992 – Mount Pinatubo’s eruption the previous year was one of the big contributors to a cool summer in Ithaca and much of the Northeast, the coldest on record in fact (temperatures from June 21st – September 21st averaged 64.0 F in 1992; the average is 67.2 F).
If it’s at all comforting, it looks like measurable June snows haven’t been recorded in the region since the late 1830s or 1840s. Hopefully it stays that way.
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