Tag Archives: Weather

Locust Plagues (1873-1877)

The timing of easterners’ migration into the Great Plains coincided with devastating swarms of locusts. The insects, really a species of grasshopper in swarming phase, mainly stayed in the Rocky Mountains until the jet stream facilitated movement to the Plains, where heat helped them breed.

The hungry scavengers devoured all crops in their path and sometimes, fences, blankets, and wool. When the food was gone, the swarms moved on in a flying cloud. Insects caused an estimated $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and elsewhere. In Minnesota, where author Laura Ingalls Wilder witnessed the plague as described in On the Banks of Plum Creek, locusts destroyed more than 13 million bushels of wheat and 7 million bushels of oats. “The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air,” wrote Wilder, “and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm.”

The largest swarm, recorded in 1874, covered 198,000 square miles. A report that year showed only one family in 10 had enough food for the winter. The government relaxed Homestead Act residency rules so settlers could seek temporary work elsewhere. In 1875, Uncle Sam spent $30,000 on seeds for farmers. Less than 30 years later, locusts mysteriously died out.

Eighteen Sixteen — The Year Without a Summer

In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted, spewing tons of volcanic dust into the air. It floated around Earth’s upper atmosphere, causing a dramatic climate shift worldwide. Crops failed as frosts struck even during the summer of 1816 in New England. Delaware farmers complained about the price of corn for their hogs. Masses of people left the Northeast, seeking better prospects in the Midwest.

American religious revivalists held meetings and formed new sects. Sporadic Sunday worshipers renewed their faith. In the November election, dissatisfied voters replaced 70 percent of the House of Representatives. France and England experienced political unrest, too. Typhoid broke out in Ireland, and starving families fled to America, making 1816 and 1817 the leading edge of famine-related migrations. Poor nutrition contributed to the first worldwide cholera epidemic.

On the bright side, English artist J.W. Turner’s paintings featured the spectacular sunsets caused by the volcanic ash in the air. Read more about this tumultuous period in Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816, the Year Without a Summer by Henry M. Stommel.

The Great September Gale

The Great September Gale of 1815 by John Russell Bartlett

Without modern forecasting methods and early warning systems, residents of Saybrook, Connecticut, were surprised when the first hurricane to strike New England in 180 years came ashore there. Newspaper accounts from the time describe it as a violent storm that toppled church steeples and ripped up fruit trees as far as 85 miles inland. All along the coast from Long Island to New England, wooden shipping warehouses and vessels were flattened or swept out to sea.

In Providence, Rhode Island, an 11-foot storm surge combined with the incoming tide to destroy 500 houses and 35 ships, damaging at least a quarter of the taxable property in the town. A plaque on the town’s Market House points out the high-water mark. Moses Brown, a Rhode Island merchant, claimed $1 million in losses.

Thankfully, the loss of life was minor for most towns. Newspapers listed ships lost but included few names of people injured or killed. Nature’s fury is visible in Rhode Island painter John Russell Bartlett’s The Great September Gale of 1815. And you can attribute the charming — and sturdy — stone buildings in Providence and other waterfront towns to this great gale.