Sunspots in 1816: Cultural Curiosity Turned to Panic

We have relied on weather predictions and weather science in our everyday lives for hundreds of years. Whether it helps us to decide what we’re going to wear or how we’re going to travel, knowing what’s going on with the weather is extremely important. We live in a society where weather and climate change is a huge source of public policy, global news coverage, and international legislation. As a society, we are both intrigued and cautious about what the global climate may become in the decades and millenniums that follow us.

In our recent history, the understanding of the weather has not only been rudimentary but easily manipulated in the eyes of the public. There were many things about weather science that we did not understand and the very limited technology of the past did not help. The basic technologies available to researchers and everyday enthusiasts consisted of handheld telescopes, thermometers, and barometers. These technologies were helpful in the collection of weather activity and data but provided little in-depth knowledge that would have been useful at the time.

All of people’s fears about harmful weather came to a head in 1816 when an eruption from Mt. Tambora thousands of miles away only one year earlier created the phenomenon that became know as the “year without a summer”. The lasting cold was a mystery to those it effected and forced researchers and the general public to come up with theories as to why the weather had changed so drastically. One of these theories created more widespread panic than any other and changed the way people thought about weather and the universe.

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Sunspots, and their heightened activity in 1816, were one of the most popular theories as to why the weather had shifted in such a short amount of time. The spots were cause for public panic and their influence was only intensified by the main source of media during the 19th century: newspapers. Through newspapers, research, theories, and apocalyptic predictions were published and available to the public. Articles detailing conflicting research and ideas about the spots bombarded the public which in turn created more confusion about the spots and their true nature than ever before.

Little was known about the spots other than the fact that they were cool spots on the sun that appeared and disappeared for no apparent reason. From what we know now, the increased sunspot activity and the effects of Tambora’s eruption were merely coincidental. In reality, the spots had no impact on the earth’s weather and their increased activity was due to the Dalton Minimum, a random fluctuation in sunspot activity. Although we know now that the spots are harmless, in 1816 it was believed that the cold spots would eventually consume the sun’s surface and the sun itself would burn out leaving the earth frozen and dark. This is where theories about the end of the world stemmed from. These theories were widely debated and, because the world did not end as a result of the sunspots or the cold summer, were eventually found to be untrue.

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There were many reasons as to why sunspots became so influential during this time to both everyday people as well as highly educated researchers. They were excited and perplexed by the spots and their impact on weather, climate, and their future. The spots influenced nearly all aspects of society including science, media, and public panic in 1816.

If you would like to learn more about sunspots and their cultural influence in 1816, Sunspots and Strange Weather: Population Panic in 1816 can be found here.

 

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