Our city has only three seasons — hot, hotter and hell. Given this, would people believe me if I said that the temperature once dipped below freezing in our city, and that too, in the sweltering month of April? It would probably be dismissed as an April Fool’s Joke. And yet it happened exactly 200 years ago, in the last week of April 1815. The morning temperature was 11 degrees Celsius on Monday, April 24, and by Friday, April 28, it had dipped to minus 3 degrees Celsius. There are unverified reports of snow falling too but that may be an exaggeration.
The cause of this freak phenomenon was the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in distant Indonesia. At that time, this was the tallest peak in the archipelago which formed that country, rising to a height of 4,300 m.
Lava burst forth from it on April 10 and 11, 1815, with such ferocity that the explosion killed around 12,000 people and was heard 2,000 km away. It holds the record for being the largest volcanic activity ever in world history till date.
What followed next is best described in Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood — “Tambora’s dust veil, serene and massive above the clouds, began its westward drift aloft the winds of the upper atmosphere. Its airy passage to India outran the thousands of waterborne vessels below bent upon an identical course, breasting the trade winds from the resource-rich East Indies to the commercial ports of the Indian Ocean. The vanguard of Tambora’s stratospheric plume arrived over the Bay of Bengal within days”.
Madras was perhaps the first to feel it two weeks later, with the temperature dipping to freezing point, thanks to the aerosols in the volcanic cloud absorbing heat from the sun and the earth. Given that our public dons monkey caps and earmuffs in December each year, what was the fashion statement in freezing April 1815? There is, however, not one East India Company record that notes the reactions of the colonial masters or the people to this freak occurrence. There is also no mention of a tsunami. Pumice stone, however, washed up on the coast for a long while.
What followed thereafter was not as pleasant as the cold weather. The ash cloud spread globally, making 1816 the ‘year without summer’. In Madras, and the rest of India, it also meant a year without monsoon. Crops failed, as they did internationally. Famine in India was followed by cholera, which is now directly attributed by scholars to the volcano. Over 70,000 people perished globally, due to Tambora.
In August 1815, the brig Catherina — the first vessel from Java after the eruption — arrived in Madras. The Madras Courier interviewed the craft’s master for an eyewitness description of what happened. He also brought with him a bag of volcanic ash, which was forwarded to Calcutta for further analysis. But nobody linked the big freeze in Madras to the volcano!
This article appeared in The Hindu dated April 18, under the Hidden Histories column.
A year later, on April 29, 2016, I have this feedback from Srikanth, a renowned weather blogger:
Dear Mr. Sriram,
Trust this mail finds you well. At the outset allow me to express my sincere thanks for those wonderful articles bringing out the city of Madras. I take this opportunity to introduce myself, Srikanth, while I am a marketer by profession as a passion am a weather blogger. Am part of the team that runs the Chennaiyil Oru Mazhaikaalam weather blog which can be accessed at http://www.chennairains.com. We are a bunch of amateur weather bloggers who track weather activities, interpret it and provide updates t our followers.
This mail is with regard to your article on the Great Madras Freeze,http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/when-madras-froze-over/article7112961.ece, which you had written last year to commemorate the bicentenary of the Mt. Tambora eruption which social media took to great heights this year on April 28th as the day Madras had snow & sub zero temperatures. In hindsight I should have possibly written this mail last year but it is not too late either.
As you know the above article has capture the imagination of most Chennaities possibly the romance of a hot city like Chennai seeing sub zero temperatures was too fascinating to ignore. As a weather blogger for me it was an opportunity to check on the event, that is how I started looking out for more information on the Great Madras Freeze. Last year we had a post in our blog which said the freeze could not have happened because most of the evidence are circumstantial and no direct evidence are available to confirm if the Freeze did happen. We had infact referred to the original study by Dr.Stothers,http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/1984/1984_Stothers_2.pdfm who as part of his actual study never mentioned about the temperatures in Madras dropping to sub zero. There was no original temperature records included in the study but reference made to Asiatic Journal. We had as part of our post put a reference to Madras Courier which had interviewed a Captain but never mentioned about the Chennai Snow. Since we did not have any direct evidence we ended up saying it could be an exaggeration.
This year April when once again social media started actively sharing about this event I thought of doing a deeper study to understand this. While searching for references I managed to locate the daily temperature data maintained by Mr. Goldingham of Madras Observatory. Mr. Golidingham needs no introduction to you having yourself written on him and his contributions to Madras. This set of records does not show any reference to the Madras Freeze though it has records from late 18th century. Now fairly convinced the actual meteorological data did not record any such event to understand why almost every study quoted Dr.Stothers and the drop in temperatures at Madras I got in touch with Dr. Michael Rampino, Dr. Stothers is no more having passed away in 2011, who has himself authored a few studies on the impact of Mt. Tambora explosion a couple of which was with Dr. Stothers himself. Dr.Rampino confirmed it was only the Asiatic Journal that was the reference and no direct meteorological data for that quote.
The Asiatic Journal of 1816 carries a reference of this event vaguely mentioning “The following remarkable change was observed in the state of weather at Madras, during last week of April 1815. On Monday morning the thermometer was at 52; on Wednesday morning at 33 and on Friday morning at 26” . To Dr.Stother’s credit this reference was only included in the Footnotes & References section and not part of his main study in which he mentions about 0.7 degrees increase in temperature over Northern Hemisphere during 1816.
Having gone through all this now I firmly believe there is no documentary evidence for the Madras freeze actually happening and the event did not happen at all. I request you now to please look into the available evidence once again and issue necessary clarifications so that we can close this chapter of Madras Freezing once for all. It certainly does not look good on a historian like you nor an institution like The Hindu to be party to a story that is based on hearsay.
You can go through the following links to check the temperature data maintained by Goldingam
You can also go through this book written by Dr. James Annesley, “Sketches of the Most Prevalent Diseases of India in 1825 which has references to the mean temperature data of Chennai for the previous years maintained by Goldingham. https://books.google.co.in/books?id=wx3t7EwZ85IC&lpg=PR3&ots=keCQCFBEL4&dq=Sketches%20of%20the%20Most%20Prevalent%20Diseases%20of%20India%3A%20Comprising%2C%20a%20Treatise%20on%20.&pg=PA161#v=onepage&q&f=false
Considering this was printed in 1825 in case the Madras freeze actually happened it should have showed in the temperatures and also as a reference by the author who has talked about changing seasons in the years before over most parts of the country.
I look forward to your feedback on this.
Thanks & Regards