Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Extreme weather history: case studies from the UK and beyond
Location Senate House - Athlone Room
Date and Start Time 27 May, 2016 at 11:30
Sessions 2


  • Georgina Endfield (University of Nottingham) email
  • Lucy Veale (University of Nottingham) email

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Short Abstract

This panel will explore the use of historical archival approaches to investigate how

people have understood, been affected by and have responded to climate variability and

extreme weather events through time.

Long Abstract

This panel will explore the use of historical archival approaches to investigate how people have understood, been affected by and have responded to climate variability and extreme weather events through time. Specifically, it will focus on how and why particular events become inscribed into the cultural fabric of communities and how they have contributed to community change in a range of historical and cultural contexts.

The intention will be to attract papers from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives that draw on a range of case study regions and sites in order to explore these issues in a set of contrasting cultural and environmental contexts and to investigate the degree to which context influences vulnerability and relative adaptability (including failure to adapt). Our premise with this panel is that by investigating these themes historically over centuries it may be possible to trace how perceptions of risk, vulnerability and efforts to increase resilience have changed over time. By establishing local histories of extreme weather events it may be possible to identify patterns revealing the nature, frequency and intensity of past events, with a view to better understanding the likelihood of future events affecting those same areas and communities. Moreover, by exploring how trajectories of vulnerabilities, it will be possible to identify those regions and communities most sensitive to the impacts of future events.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


A severe windstorm in medieval England - Responses and reactions to the St Maur's Day storm of 1362

Author: Peter Brown (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

A unique quantity of documentary and material evidence survives attesting to the St Maur's Day storm of 1362. This permits a detailed understanding of factors including the immediate impact, damage distribution and short-medium term consequences of an extreme event on pre-modern English society.

Long Abstract

Few extreme weather events prior to the early modern period have enough surviving documentary evidence of sufficient detail to permit an accurate understanding of their effect and impact. As a result we know relatively little about how the damage caused by these events was perceived, experienced or mitigated in earlier periods. Almost uniquely, the quantity of sources documenting the St Maur's Day storm of January 1362, by all accounts one of the most severe British storms of recorded history, provides a rare insight into the effects of an unprecedented extreme event on pre-modern English society. The volume of both documentary and structural data allows a wide variety of the storm's effects to be reconstructed. This includes the area of effect as well as a detailed understanding of the post event response and recovery ranging right from the level of Royal and Papal decrees which aimed to ameliorate post event conditions right down to the organization of repairs on the estates of landowners and the effects of the storm on individuals. This provides an incomplete yet important record of the short-medium term responses induced by the storm. In addition, contemporary perceptions and later literary commemorations provide another route to gauge the cultural impact of the storm in its immediate aftermath and the longer term. Taken together, these different strands of data permit a reconstruction of the immediate impact and longer term effects of a natural disaster on the many different layers of medieval society.

A strategy to cope with extreme weather: The Gleichberg and Cottaberg 'Eruptions' of 1783

Author: Katrin Kleemann (LMU Munich)  email

Short Abstract

The 1783 Laki eruption caused extreme weather, such as a lasting dry fog, for most of Europe. Contemporaries speculated about the origin. Reconstructing the debate from newspapers: For a few weeks contemporaries believed two volcanic eruptions in the German territories caused the peculiar weather.

Long Abstract

The Icelandic Laki fissure eruption of 1783 had far-reaching effects: Its volcanic gases travelled to Europe and caused many weather extremes above Europe, such as a heat wave, an unusual frequency of thunderstorms, blood red sunsets and sunrises, but most notably it produced a dry fog with a sulphuric odour that reduced visibility and lasted for two months. News about an Icelandic volcanic eruption, however, only reached Europe after the fog had vanished again, so the contemporaries were left alone to speculate about the cause of the awe-inspiring weather. There were many competing interpretations as to the fog's origin: Earthquakes in Italy, meteors, aurora borealis, or peat burning.

In July 1783 several German newspapers printed reports about a local volcano roaring back to life, suggesting it to be the source of the extraordinary weather in their region. This explained all the oddities such as the smell, the haze, the thunderous sounds, and leaves turning white. The reports were written on June 24th, approximately the time of the first appearance of the dry fog in the German territories on June 16th. It is fascinating the same explanation was used with two mountains of volcanic origin independently from one another: The Gleichberg near Hildburghausen and the Cottaberg near Dresden. The explanation was only upheld for a few short weeks before the newspapers retracted it again, after realizing the volcanoes did not actually erupt. A local volcano was used as a coping strategy to explain the very unusual weather phenomenon.

Extreme Weather on the Edge of the World: School Log Books and Hebridean Life

Author: Simon Naylor (University of Glasgow)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the impact of extreme weather on the island communities of the Outer Hebrides in north-west Scotland during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is based on the empirical study of school log books, which documented weather extremes and other aspects of island life.

Long Abstract

This paper uses school log books to examine the effects of extreme weather on the lives of the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Extreme weather events were frequently recorded in school log books due to their correspondence with school attendance. The paper shows how extreme weather influenced a wide range of aspects of everyday life across the island chain. For instance, it affected the traditional industries of crofting and fishing, hampering the economic development of the region and had implications for the health and wellbeing of the population, often coinciding with outbreaks of disease, illness and pandemics. Children routinely missed school because the weather was too bad for them to reach it, or because their clothing was insufficient for them to cope with heavy rain, wind or snow. Focusing on the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the paper will consider the relative resilience of different rural and urban and inland and coastal communities. It will also explore the efforts that individuals and communities, as well as authorities, charitable organisations and philanthropists took to mitigate the effects of extreme weather on the islands' inhabitants. Lastly, the paper will argue that school log books are at once a neglected resource for geographers, historians, anthropologists and others, while offering unique insight into past weather extremes and their implications for the everyday lives of island communities on the edge of the world.

Flood History, Cultural Memory and Urban Development in Colonial Singapore c. 1830-1900

Author: Fiona Williamson (United Nations University International Institute for Global Health )  email

Short Abstract

This paper takes colonial Singapore c.1800-1900 as a case study for investigating historic floods. It will consider: frequency, location, and scale of past inundations; how floods contributed to urban planning and mitigation; how exceptional inundation events became inscribed into community memory.

Long Abstract

Historic records are increasingly considered significant for understanding future climate change challenges and, more recently, nature-induced disaster, especially impact, risk, and adaption. This is important because current databases used by meteorologists and reinsurance companies for risk analysis and prediction, rarely predate the 1950s. Historic records not only provide evidence as to occurrence and scale of past weather events, but critical context as to how communities responded and adapted for future generations, if at all.

This paper takes the colonial city of Singapore c.1800-1900 as the case study for investigating historic floods. By using a combination of meteorological and narrative historic records it will chart the frequency, location, and scale of past inundations, but more significantly, it will explore how floods contributed to that city's changing urban fabric through planning and mitigation strategies, and how exceptional inundation events became inscribed into Singapore's popular memory and culture.

Slow catastrophes: using historic farm diaries to explore drought resilience

Author: Rebecca Jones (The Australian National University)  email

Short Abstract

Intermittent severe drought is a feature of the south eastern Australian climate. Using long term farm diaries to understand adaptation to drought, this paper explores farmers’ resilience and change in response to climate variability in the past, suggesting insights for future climatic events.

Long Abstract

Intermittent, severe drought is a feature of the south-eastern Australian climate. In the past 150 years alone, this region has experienced eleven serious droughts. Drought has shaped the soil, vegetation and animals, shadows communities and holds an iconographic place in Australian identity. Its social, economic and emotional impact is profound, but its recurrence and persistence has meant that people have, in the long term, found ways to adapt. How have they done this?

'Slow catastrophes' explores the deliberate, creative and at times surprising strategies people have used to adapt to drought from the 1870s to the 1940s. It focuses on farmers and graziers in south eastern Australia who are amongst the people most profoundly impacted by climatic extremes. Long term farm diaries, some spanning over fifty years, reveal the way farmers have responded before and after, as well as during drought. They provide a window into cultural, social and agricultural change over time and, from this, a rich picture of the lived experience of adaptation to climatic extremes emerges. The way people understood drought and integrated it into their lives, their actions and their physical and emotional responses promoted and hindered proactive responses to drought.

This environmental history applies sociological, psychological and socio-ecological ideas of resilience to explore responses to drought through social historical sources. It contributes insights into the process of resilience to environmental events in the past 150 years and suggests ideas for responding to drought in the present and future.

The act of remembering, 300 years of flood documentary data in the UK

Author: Marie-Jeanne Royer (Aberystwyth University)  email

Short Abstract

We propose that a systematic research through available archive records to identify and analyse flood proxy records can deepen the understanding of how and why such events become inscribed into memory; leading to more targeted risk communications and more successful adaptation programs.

Long Abstract

Climate change research has put into sharp focus the need for a strong understanding of flood events and their impacts on communities and individuals. Events are often inscribed to memory in the form of ideology, custom, behaviour, narrative, artefact, and technological and physical adaptation. Documentary proxy records help identify how societies have been affected by, adapted to, and conceptualized such past events. We propose that a systematic research through available archive records to identify and analyse flood proxy records can deepen the understanding of how and why such events become inscribed into an individual's or community's memory. Flood events are described in documents often with past floods given in comparison, leading to insights into the most memorable floods over time. Detailed descriptions allow us to see whether there is credence to the theory that flood events are more likely to be inscribed into local memory through the damage or social impacts they cause than their physical characteristics. Descriptions also often include local markers which identify the extent of the floods. The choice of these markers and their repeated use among inhabitants over long periods of time offers insight into spatial organisation and a region's lived space. This heritage can directly or indirectly influence the landscape and how people understand and respond to risk and uncertainty with respect to the timing and impact of future floods. Thus a better understanding of how and why events are inscribed in memory can lead to more targeted risk communications and more successful adaptation programs.

Storms, Risk and Coastal Communities, 1790 to today

Author: Vanessa Taylor (University of Greenwich)  email

Short Abstract

This paper asks how coastal communities in Britain have understood and responded to risks relating to storms and coastal change in the past, and what this can tell us about localised responses to shoreline policies today.

Long Abstract

This paper how coastal communities in Britain have responded to - and contributed to - risk and coastal change in the past, and how far this history continues to shape responses to shoreline policies today, from 'holding the line' to 'managed retreat'. Rising sea levels and global warming have focused popular and official attention on the dangers of coastal change, but storm damage and erosion have long been with us. What can a long-term survey and case study approach to these processes tell us about localised responses to current national and EU policies? Existing literature on storms and coastal change focuses on debates at national level about causes, blame and remedies (e.g. Carlsson-Hyslop 2009, 2010); by contrast this paper considers how people living and working on the coast have understood risk and how this has shaped their daily lives, tactics for resilience, and expectations for the future. In the light of literature on risk (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982; Giddens 2009; Lübken and Mauch 2011) and place attachment (Altman and Irwin 1992), it asks how coastal storms and flooding have affected localised risk assessments, responses to official shoreline policies, and expectations for the longevity or sustainability of communities over this period.

Alongside current policy documents, the paper draws on late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century journal literature on storm events and coastal change. It explores in particular one storm in November 1897 which affected much of the British Isles, using archival records for Sea Breach Commissioners and local authorities, and contemporary press reports.

The Ethics of Atmosfear: High-Impact Weather Events and the Governance of Climate Change

Authors: Vladimir Jankovic (University of Manchester)  email
David Schultz (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper we explore the meanings and uses of severe weather events in the context of climate change policy. Why is extreme weather playing a prominent role in mobilizing policy work and public opinion about climate change?

Long Abstract

With each new weather disaster, the media ask the question, "Was this disaster caused by anthropogenic climate change?" Scientists, eager to motivate the public and governments to act on climate change, often link these individual weather events with climate change, often without substantial evidence to support the linkage or even without knowing whether it is an effective strategy. Furthermore, linking high-impact weather events with climate change perpetuates the idea that reducing greenhouse gases would be enough to reduce increasingly vulnerable world populations to the effects of adverse weather. Is it ethical for scientists to argue this point, particularly when stopping all greenhouse gas emissions overnight would not prevent weather disasters from occurring? Is it ethical as a society to prepare for a future 50-100 years in the future when thousands die in weather disasters each year worldwide?

In this paper we argue that this strategy confuses the public and policy makers as to the socioeconomic susceptibility to extreme weather. We argue that there is no quick, single-cause solution for the problem of human vulnerability to socioenvironmental change, nor is there a reasonable prospect of attenuating the impact of extreme weather events through a policy that ignores the 'social change' at the expense of climate change.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.