Saturday, January 9, 2010

Did a volcano just erupt there?

Did some research for an article that got bumped to make room for Iris Robinson's naughtiness but if you're interested in past weather patterns, you might find this interesting....

WITH arctic weather conditions sweeping the globe from India to Italy, there has an apocalyptic feel to recent weeks. China has been paralysed by 10 inches of snow and Poland devastated by temperatures of minus 25C.

At home, what seemed like an inconvenience when most of the country was on holiday has become a daily battle against ungritted roads, ill-equipped public transport and frozen water supplies.

But the shock is probably heightened by the fact that we have spent the past decade with our ears burning to the buzzwords of global warming. The severity of the snow and ice is not in fact unprecedented in Irish history. While a temperature low of -13C was recorded in Mullingar on Christmas Day, it has been neither the most bitter nor the most protracted freeze here. The lowest ground temperature in Ireland was -19.1C recorded in January 1881 in Sligo.

The poor citizens of 1740 Ireland didn’t need (or have) meterological measurements to alert them to a fatally bitter winter. The great frost that covered the country froze winter vegetables in the ground and seized up water mills.

It was a similar story in much of the rest of western Europe although London managed to hit a note of gaiety by staging a carnival on the ice of the frozen-over River Thames. Here, the atrocious conditions – followed by a drought in 1741 - led to what has been called ‘the forgotten famine’. The deaths and wave of emigration it sparked were almost as catastrophic as the potato crisis that would hit a century later.

The 19th century was no more kind – global temperatures dropped dramatically after a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 rocketed ash and sulphuric acid into the atmosphere and threw a veil over the globe. The following year, spent in darkness and depressed weather conditions, became known as the year without summer.

Ireland again suffered terribly, with rain falling 142 out of 153 days of summer and 60,000 people dying of starvation or typhoid. (Interesting footnote, book fans: this was the summer in which Mary Shelley, bored and trapped indoors by the terrible weather, wrote Frankenstein.)

As if that were not freak enough, a great blizzard swept across Ireland, Wales and parts of England in March 1891. My now 90-year-old grandfather, hearing that edges of Lough Gur in Co Limerick were beginning to freeze this week, remarked: “That’s nothing – I cycled my bicycle across the middle of the lake when it was frozen solid in 1939.”

That bitter winter was in itself a mere icicle by contrast to 1947, dubbed nationally the Big Snow. Again it was a late freeze, a fierce easterly wind blowing non-stop daytime snows across the country from late February on into March.
Fifteen-foot high snow drifts were commonplace and whole herds of sheep were suffocated and lost until a thaw set in in April.

While we naturally focus heavily on the state of the roads in our highly-mobile modern society, we can only imagine the conditions that had one newspaper van driver tell the Anglo-Celt newspaper that he had to be dug out of snow drifts four times on his slow progress from Dublin to Cavan.

In the worst-hit parts of the country that year, shops ran out of provisions, the postal and telephone services were cut off and farmers ran out of fodder. The Kilnaleck News reported that the coffin carrying the remains of one Mrs Mary Galligan had to be borne three miles from church to cemetery on the shoulders of local young men, with more going ahead of them to cut a way through the snowdrifts for the procession.

Snowdrifts are a living memory for even this generation – in 1982 a short but intense blizzard over 10 days in January caused havoc. The Canadian government donated six snow ploughs to help clear the runways at Dublin airport. The then-Tanaiste Michael O’Leary was briefly dubbed Minister for Snow as he co-ordinated efforts like the rescuing of motorists from their cars on a blizzard-hit Naas dual carriageway.

But it was the winter of 1962/63 that took true grit to survive. It was the coldest since 1740 across western Europe. The River Shannon froze solid around Limerick. Fuel and food ran dangerously low as even ports froze over. The natural world seemed turned on its head – starving birds boldly hopped into kitchens looking for scraps while there were reports of foxes hunting domestic cats to eat. And daredevils were not just able to cycle across frozen lakes: in Blessington, Co Wicklow, the locals drove their cars on them.

Even those least sceptical of climate change claims must have stared into the powdery heavens recently and wondered: They call this global warming?
Funnily enough, in the 1970s it was global cooling that was obsessing climatologists.

In 1972, a group of European and American scientists warned US President Nixon that the earth would plunge into a glacial zone within a century. They claimed that the new global freeze would be caused by natural factors similar to those behind the most recent Ice Age, which ended 10,000 years previously.

The rising levels of carbon dioxide heating the atmosphere has since switched the focus. So isn’t so-called global warming a good thing then, allowing us to remain artificially in this interglacial period of warmth?

Not exactly. Some scientists warn that a rise in ocean temperatures would disturb certain major currents. While other areas of the world would heat up, this would cool the region currently warmed by the North Atlantic current, including the Nordic countries, Britain, Iceland and Ireland.

It is also worth looking at the overall picture of current meteorological conditions across the whole world. The big freeze, caused by static high pressure systems blocking the usually warming winds, is plummeting temperatures below average from Scandinavia westwards. But in Canada, north Africa, south-west Asia and other areas, the temperatures were above average - in some places from between 5C and 10C higher than usual. Baby, it’s cold outside – but not everywhere.

1 comment:

  1. Global warming is a misleading (though accurate) name. The average world temperature going up doesn't simply mean everywhere will get warmer. Melting ice from the north pole flowing south could change the gulf stream, making Irish winters much colder, as you point out. Hence the recent trend to use 'climate change' as a desctiption instead of 'global warming'.

    Good to see you blogging Susan, just came across your blog as a result of an RT on twitter.