Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Extreme Weather, Histrionics & History

by Derry Nairn

Since visiting Japan, I've always wondered what an earthquake would do to London. I don't mean that in a malevolent way, rather, the human effects of a non-lethal earth tremor would make interesting anthropological viewing. After all, in Tokyo, anything registering below a 5 on the richter scale is generally met with a shrug. In such cases, in libraries and on public transport, my experience was that people rarely glanced up from their manga comics to register that the earth was shaking. I imagine that the effects of such an event would be very much different anywhere in the UK.

After all, natural disasters and extreme weather conditions have always received a bad press in this country. So mild is the climate that the public reaction here to extremes in weather and temperature always seem a touch histrionic. The current cold snap is no exception.

An article in today's Evening Standard screams:-
Southern England... was gripped by conditions colder than parts of Iceland and Greenland as temperatures fell close to minus 12C (10.4F).
(my italics)

Then, very quietly, a few paragraphs down the page, a forecaster informs us that, in fact:-
Southern England will still be coldest tonight but temperatures are unlikely to fall lower than minus 5C
(my italics)
Catherine Ostler hits the nail on the head elsewhere in the same edition:-
Russians in London say the cold here is worse than at home, because we are so mentally unprepared for it that we make it feel like a catastrophe, or an epidemic.

In an piece from July 2007, our ex-editor Peter Furtado ruminated on the theme:-
One thing that history teaches us is a sense of proportion... When the Yellow River flooded in 1931, more than a million people died. In China, as in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and many other places, the need for a continual communal contribution to flood defences has shaped the development of society itself, and contributed to the development of a highly organised society. The fact that these have sometimes been overwhelmed, is tragic, but not the occasion for a loss of nerve.

Historically speaking, Britain and Ireland have had their fair share of freak acts of nature. I've selected here a few choice nuggets from the History Today Archive on the topic of the extremes of nature and humankind's reactions to it:-

The Great Smog F R E E
Devra Davis looks at the London Smog disaster of 1952-53.

The Lisbon Tsunami F R E E
Jenifer Roberts recalls the impact of an earlier tidal wave, which brought chaos and disaster to Portugal 250 years ago.

Under the Weather: Climate and Disease, 1700-1900
Climate, disease and the relationship between them fascinated 18th-century observers on both sides of the Atlantic. Ronald Rees explores the debate and its significance.

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