UK readers will recall Somerset was an inland sea just this Spring and the Thames valley filled up like a blocked drain. That was unusual, so weird weather must signal that something is happening which has never happened before, right? So-called “extreme weather events” are the clinchers to convince those doubters of man-made global change. Not one event in isolation, mind you, but these days it seems like it’s just one after another like never before. As the Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo said: “all the evidence” pointed to climate change as the cause, although there was not yet “definitive proof”.
Well no, not all the evidence and no, not quite like never before.
Imagine how seductive would be that argument if the weather remains as apocalyptic as it has been this Spring in the UK.
It did — but it was in the early 1850s.
You can excuse The Times when it summed up 1852’s disastrous weather in uncharacteristically poetic tone, though the message is all too familiar today: “Rain, rain, rain has continued to pour down upon us almost to the present moment, till the earth has refused to imbibe the superabundant moisture and the natural drains and outlets of the land have been unable to carry it off.
“Fields have been transformed into swamps, meadows into marshes and hills into islands… railway lines have been hidden beneath eddying waters, roads have been temporarily concealed; bridges washed away, houses flooded to their second storey and towns traversed in boats. And still we have had rain, rain, rain with scarcely an hour’s cessation.”
Weird weather has always been with us. However, much is blotted from official figures, which are surprisingly choosy. Doubtless for very good statistical reasons they would argue, the Meteorological Office often releases its wettest, hottest, coldest, driest figures calculated from a time just before the First World War. So when you read it’s the something-est ‘since records began’, you’d imagine at least a couple of hundred years. Be advised that it may only mean since 1910, a blink of a climatologist’s eye.
Some might say that figures from before that date are unreliable, but surely not?. One can well imagine generations of amateur and professional weather watchers diligently tapping their thermometers, barometers and emptying their rain gauges for much longer than that. And when an 18th or 19th century newspaper published reports of exceptional weather, you can be assured that those reports had to be accurate, otherwise squires and parsons up and down the land would put down their wet and dry bulb thermometers and pick up their pens to augment or correct the record.
If last year it had been nearly 22C in Manchester in March and we had 85 mph gales across the south of England; if this year was the wettest on record, and if we had a summer with an apocalyptic series of thunderstorms rolling across the country for months on end, some lasting up to 12 hours at a stretch, then wouldn’t the 24-hour news networks have a field day? That’s extreme weather for you. But that’s not this year’s weather – that all happened in 1871 and 1872.
A mere seven years after those 1871-2 events and a whole year’s weather was unusual, with abnormally low temperatures both summer and winter in 1879. There was snow in May. July saw almost continual rain and daytime temperatures more like February. Harvesting crops was a waste of effort. It wasn’t just in Britain. There were disastrous floods as far away as India. and Jamaica. August 2nd saw a widespread thunderstorm with irregular lumps of ice 5 inches in circumference that passed through glass ‘as a bullet from a rifle’.
October was singled out as the best month of the whole year – just because the rainfall was only ‘moderate’. In December, came a storm variously described as a hurricane and ‘worse than a cyclone in the South China Seas’, with winds gusting to 80 mph. It washed away a train full of passengers along with the famous bridge over the Silvery Tay. The weather did not get any less strange over the following few years, with 40 hours of incessant rain causing flooding from Yorkshire to London in October 1880 and a nationwide blizzard with record low temperatures leaving three foot snowdrifts in London in January 1881.
There are many more examples through the centuries of unusual, sometimes bizarre, departures in quick succession from what we would call ‘normal’ weather– and of course there are many years where not much out of the ordinary happened. Whichever side of the man-made warming debate you are on, it is glib to talk loosely that there has been a sudden upsurge in extreme weather events — and thus the world is going to hell in a hand cart. On this point evidence from history cannot be denied.
As the common sense Victorians, who modestly knew they did not have all the scientific answers, were wont to say: “Weather probably doesn’t altogether know its own mind, or, if it does it has not as yet taken meteorologists into its confidence.” So while the Little-endians and Big-endians of climate change slug it out over what Floodmageddon really meant, aren’t they words worth remembering?