Ten Years of Winter: The Cold Decade and Environmental Consciousness in the Early 19th Century
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Two volcanic eruptions in 1809 and 1815 shrouded the earth in sulfur dioxide and triggered a series of weather and climate anomalies manifesting themselves between 1810 and 1819, a period that scientists have termed the “Cold Decade.” People who lived during the Cold Decade appreciated its anomalies through direct experience, and they employed a number of cognitive and analytical tools to try to construct the environmental worlds in which they lived. Environmental consciousness in the early 19th century commonly operated on two interrelated layers. The first was local, encompassing what people saw and experienced around them in their day-to-day lives, communities and localities, including the weather above them and outside their windows and the environmental characteristics they knew and felt they understood. The second was a broader layer, less known and often less knowable, encompassing the world outside of the local which included climate, the region, the planet, the heavens and the cosmos. Many people during the Cold Decade tried to explore and conquer that broader layer—to pull it closer, to define it, in some cases to tame or harness it—and people’s efforts to do this, while different depending on who they were and their life situations, had real-world consequences not merely in the Cold Decade itself but in the modernizing world that subsequently emerged. This dissertation examines Cold Decade environmental consciousness in five groups of people, most in the United States but some in Europe and other parts of the world: weather watchers, who kept detailed records on weather phenomena and used this data to discern patterns and theories of climate and weather prediction; diarists, ordinary people who recorded and remarked upon weather and climate phenomena in their journals, and who explored the broader layer by knowing weather and climate through personal experience; doctors, who leveraged weather and climate knowledge for the benefit of their patients; arguers, who conducted an intellectual debate about whether the Earth’s climate was growing warmer or colder; and travelers, people who sought to understand the broader layer through travel and geography.