The cold wet August of 1912 and the Novarupta eruption

Figure 1 – Courtesy of Wetterzentrale

The coldest August since 1910 was that of 1912. It was both wet, cold and dull. At many coastal stations around the UK the sea temperature was higher than the air temperature. In the monthly weather report for 1912 the review of the month concludes by saying

Observers in various parts of the United Kingdom noticed in the rare intervals of fine weather the sky seldom assumed its ordinary blue tint, but appeared to be covered with a hazy film “producing grey whiteness of the unclouded sky, and extreme weakness of all sunshine”. A similar appearance was noted by several continental observers.

The mean temperature for the UK was just 11.7°C which is 3.26°C below the 1981-2010 long-term average. The mean maximum anomaly for the month was even lower at 3.94°C below average. Looking at the regional temperature anomalies (fig 2), the cold was across the board.

Figure 2 – August 1912

As well as being very cold, it was also very wet, especially in more southern regions, and particularly in East Anglia which saw over three times the monthly average rainfall (fig 3).

Figure 3 – August 1912

In fact August 1912 was and still is the wettest August in the entire EWP rainfall series that started in 1766 (fig 4).

Figure 4

As you probably noticed in the daily charts for the month (fig 1), August 1912 was a very cyclonic month as you can see in the Lamb Circulation types for the month (fig 5).

Figure 5

As regards the CET for the month, I can’t remember ever seeing a summer month as cold as this one (fig 6). August 1912 was, and still is the coldest August on record back to 1659, beating even the cold year of 1695 into second place.

Figure 6

Not only was it the coldest August on record, it was also ushered in the start of a three-month cold spell in central England, with a cold September (mean anomaly -2.5°C) and October (mean anomaly -2.4°C) to follow (fig 7).

Figure 7

At this point I would like to produce some statistics to show that August 1912 was also the dullest on record, but I can’t, the Met Office maintain that they only began measuring sunshine from 1929. The MWR comes to the rescue though, because it says about sunshine:

Sunshine was very deficient, a large number of stations situated in nearly all parts of the kingdom recording considerably less than half the average amount. In the Channel Isles and at a few places in the extreme southeast of England the mean daily duration ranged between 4 and 4½ hours, and was equal to about 30 percent of the possible. Over Central and Southern Scotland and at a few places in the northeast of England the daily duration was less than 2 hours; at Crathes, Glasgow and Eskdalemuir it amounted to only 1o percent of the possible.

What caused it?

Here’ a graph of 12 month rolling CET values for around that time, forget the date in the subtitle, another bug for the programmer to fix. I’ve overlaid the volcanic dust index events that were greater, or equal to 4, on the VEI on top of the line series, and as you can see the Novarupta event (VEI 6) looks like it may well have been responsible for global cooling that also affected our own CET series back in 1912 across, and fits well with the reports of a greyish white haze from the Monthly Weather Report for August 1912.

Figure 8


Figure 9 – Novarupta’s lava dome in July 1987

I had never heard of the Novarupta eruption until I started researching this article today. I never even realised it was the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th century, here’s what the Wikipedia article had to say about it:

The eruption of Novarupta in the Aleutian Range began on June 6, 1912, and culminated in a series of violent eruptions. Rated a 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the 60-hour-long eruption expelled 13 to 15 cubic kilometers (3.1 to 3.6 cu mi) of ash, 30 times as much as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The erupted magma of Rhyolite, Dacite, and Andesite resulted in more than 17 cubic kilometers (4.1 cu mi) of air fall tuff and approximately 11 cubic kilometers (2.6 cu mi) of pyroclastic ash-flow tuff. During the 20th century, only the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines were of a similar magnitude; Pinatubo ejected 11 cubic kilometers (2.6 cu mi) of tephra. At least two larger eruptions occurred in the 19th century: the 1815 eruption of Tambora (150 km3 (36.0 cu mi) of tephra), and the 1883 eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatoa (20 km3 (4.8 cu mi) of tephra).

Figure 10 – Novarupta map: Approximate location of the June 6th, 1912 eruption. Ash fell on the town of Kodiak for three days, and although the town was about 100 miles from the volcano, it was covered with over one foot of ash which collapsed many buildings. Courtesy of and MapResources.

There’s a interesting article on the website about the eruption that you might find useful.

The latitude of the Novarupta eruption was just about perfect at 58° north for maximum effect across the northern hemisphere, as was the timing of the 6th of June to coincide with the cold months of August, September and October of 1912 in the CET series. I should imagine that the ash from the eruption would have taken at least a month or so to completely encircle the northern hemisphere and reduce the amount of sunlight. I am of course completely guessing that this was the cause of the cold August of 1912, I’ll have to spend some more time looking at NCEP reanalysis surface temperature data for 1912 to see just what affect it had on other countries across the northern hemisphere to completely be sure of my assertion.

Finally here are the daily CET values for the Summer of 1912 (fig 11), which I think says it all. This is one of the better articles that I’ve put together for my blog, I found little evidence of any link between the cold August of 1912 and Novarupta in any of my climate and weather books, and even though Philip Eden does mention the poor summer of 1912 in his book ‘Great British Weather Disasters’, he doesn’t make the link with the volcanic ash of Novarupta. August 1912 does get a short mention as the worst on record in the book ‘The Wrong Kind Of Snow’, but again no mention of why. So if you thought that August 2017 has been cool in its first ten 10 days, the mean temperature for the first 10 days of August 1912 was 2.5°C colder still.

Figure 11

About xmetman

An ex-metman passionate about all things to do with weather, climate and clouds
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2 Responses to The cold wet August of 1912 and the Novarupta eruption

  1. xmetman says:

    I did eventually find a recent 2011 Weather magazine article that made the link – “Two remarkable British summers – ‘perfect’ 1911 and ‘calamitous’ 1912” it read in part:

    “On 25 September 1912, W. N. Shaw of the Meteorological Office noted several correspondents describing a peculiar persistent whitish haze which has covered the sky even on apparently cloudless days during the past summer. This phenomenon was reported across Europe, including the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. For example, W. D. Addison in Riga (on the Baltic coast) wrote: [during the summer] never once have we beheld a sky which would be reasonable to term blue. A ‘veil’ seems to have been imposed between us and our sky. Shaw commented: All observers are unanimous in regarding the effects as taking place at very high levels, well above the lower cloud level (Shaw, 1912).
    Unknown to these observers, this ‘veiled’ appearance was due to fine volcanic ash which had been projected high into the stratosphere by the major eruption of the volcano Mount Katmai in Alaska between 6th and 9th of June 1912.
    This ash would have remained in the stratosphere for several months, too high for any rain to remove it. Volcanic dust from this eruption has subsequently been found in ice-cores drilled in the Greenland ice-cap. There may have been a connection between this eruption and the poor British summer.

    I think what the last sentence suggest is highly likely!

    As the website article explains, for many years it was wrongly thought by many (including the writer of the Weather article) that it had been Mount Katmai that had erupted, and not Novarupta 2.6 miles away, the article says in part:

    “It was not until the 1950s – over forty years after the eruption – that investigators finally realized that ash and pyroclastic flow thicknesses were greatest in the Novarupta area. This discovery produced a revelation that Novarupta – and not Katmai – was the volcano responsible for the eruption. This is possibly the most important false accusation in the history of volcanic study”.

  2. wansteadmeteo says:

    Interesting, Bruce. The Greenwich stats show that August 1912 was just over 2C colder than the 1881-1910 average. Rainfall was 246%. Sunshine at 108 hrs, 57% of average.
    It must have felt even more remarkable as it was nearly 6C colder than August 1911 which, in a record back to 1797, was the hottest August on record. That August has only been beaten 5 times since: 2003, 1997,1995, 1947, 1990

    I wonder how far south the icebergs were in the Atlantic by this time, bearing in mind the Titanic sank only 4 months previously due to southerly icebergs.