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“The Storm” and implications for climate change

September 27, 2011

[The historic floods of February, 2014 have sent English rivers over their banks in the worst flooding in 250 years, causing damage of epic proportions. This seems a good time to repost this older blog entry from 2011.]

This image from the BBC shows the storm of Feb. 12, 2014 passing over the British Isles.

This image from the BBC shows the storm of Feb. 12, 2014 passing over the British Isles.

When I tell people I’m reading a book called The Storm written by Daniel Defoe in 1703, I can almost see eyes glazing over. The natural reaction, which is quickly smothered by polite friends, seems to be “Why on earth would you want to read that?” Here’s why.

I’m a journalist who tells other people’s stories for a living. Defoe did the same thing three hundred years ago. As a good journalist with an eye out for a narrative, he collected eyewitness accounts of the greatest storm to strike the British Isles in recorded history: The Great Storm of 1703. American newspapers occasionally carry brief accounts of gales that topple trees across the south of England, but those storms were nothing compared with The Great Storm, whose damage has never been surpassed. Imagine two weeks of constant hurricane-force winds, rain and tornadoes, followed by the mother of all storms. The thing that grips my imagination is not merely that it happened; but the fact that due to climate change it will undoubtedly happen again.

A period engraving depicting ships being destroyed by the Great Storm of 1703.

A period engraving depicting ships being destroyed by the Great Storm of 1703.

The storm of 1703 was actually a series of extratropical cyclones. A cyclone is the same thing as a hurricane, the only difference being that tropical cyclones (hurricanes) are born over warm water and have warm cores, while extratropical cyclones are born above cold water. At least six of these cyclones struck the British Isles within a period of two weeks in November of 1703. The last and biggest one had winds of more than 100 miles per hour. It ripped off thatch and tile roofs, flattened countless houses (which at that time were sturdy post-and-beam), and set wooden windmills on fire due to friction from rapidly revolving wooden parts that couldn’t be stopped in such a heavy wind. People felt their houses beginning to fall above their heads but dared not go outside, where bricks and pantiles from roofs were whizzing like deadly missiles.  Brick chimneys toppled and crashed through roofs, crushing people who remained in their beds. Pregnant women went into labor without the assistance of midwives, not knowing if they would survive to hold their newborns. The flat lead sheets on the roofs of churches were rolled up like scrolls from the force of the wind, ripped off and carried significant distances despite weighing hundreds, even thousands of pounds.

Saltwater foam was swept by the wind more than ten miles inland, leaving the forage in the pastures so salty afterward that livestock refused to eat it. The newly-built Eddystone lighthouse was felled by massive waves that toppled it from its rock; the architect and his servants were confidently expecting to ride out the storm inside the building. All perished. In London Pool, the portion of the Thames downstream from London Bridge where ships lay at anchor, seven hundred vessels were smashed into each other and partially crushed, leaving a sea of wreckage, timbers and fallen rigging. The winds forced a storm surge up the Bristol Channel and Severn River which flooded low-lying areas many feet higher than water had ever been recorded before. Defoe rode a horse afterward through Kent in an attempt to assess the damage to trees. He gave up counting after tallying 17,000 trees down.

This book, packed with eyewitness accounts and testimonials, might be no more than a forgotten historic chronicle were it not virtually certain that a similar storm — or worse — is bound to happen, not just in England but around the world in what are now densely populated regions. A similar storm today would cripple whatever nation it struck and leave it hobbling for years, or even moribund. Remember New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; think of Joplin, Missouri after the tornado; envision the Jersey Shore after the torrential rains of Hurricane Sandy. Then combine all of these events together in an imaginary swath hundreds of miles long, as The Great Storm did in 1703 to other nations along the Channel and southern Scandinavia. The cost of a catastrophe comparable to The Great Storm would be incalculable and there is no way that the insurance industry could ever hope to cover all the damages. The economy would be impaired for years, as was the case in England following the Great Storm of 1703.

What to do? Although we can’t control the economic impact of disaster, we can take steps to ensure that we won’t be left homeless. All new houses should be constructed to be hurricane- and tornado-resistant. A simple anchor device will effectively tie roofs to the tops of walls to prevent them being carried off by wind. Existing houses can have their walls strengthened and their roofs firmly tied on, and connectors along the base ensures that they won’t be lifted from their foundations. Trees are good, trees are beautiful; but it is not a good idea to plant them close to dwellings, particularly on the southwest side. This is all common sense. Humans have a capacity for veering between extraordinary sense and extraordinary denseness. Which will it be when it comes to readying for the the next Great Storm?

Read more on the Great Storm of 1703 at:

http://www.islandnet.com/~see/weather/almanac/arc2007/alm07nov.htm

http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/east/series4/great_storm.shtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Storm_of_1703

http://www.rms.com/publications/1703_windstorm.pdf

For another essay on Daniel Defoe in general, see https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/09/05/daniel-defoe-the-first-journalist/

This BBC image shows an abandoned village in the Somerset Levels, late Jan. 2014. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26071149.

This BBC image shows an abandoned village in the Somerset Levels, late Jan. 2014. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26071149.

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