by Paul Farquharson
From about the fifth century A.D. onwards, the Western tradition of history writing preserves abundant descriptions of weather and climate phenomena in sources such as Chronicles, Annals and Histories. If this material is left out of our understanding and memory of climate, then contemporary extreme events may be mistaken for unique or unprecedented events.
Of course, descriptions of natural phenomena from Chronicles, Annals and Histories need to be critically evaluated to ensure that they are not fabricated or exaggerated or chronologically misplaced due to scribal conjuring or error (see Bell and Ogilvie, 1978).
Extreme events are part of the patterns we call “Climate.” Examples abound in historical writings, and the following are a tiny selection, mostly from the British Isles, with a few more recent events to start with. All dates are A.D.
1911. A scorching summer in England (Nicolson, 2006).
1703. The great storm of 26/27 November which devastated southern England and Wales (Brayne, 2002), and which if repeated today would cause damage valued in excess of £10 billon (Doe, 2006, p 202).
1540. An excessively hot summer in at least England and parts of western Europe (Hall’s Chronicle, Henry VIII, year 32, p 841).
1348. Almost continual rain in England from late June till late December (Chronicle of London From 1089 to 1483, Edward III, year 23, p 60).
1129. A very hot summer in Ireland dried up watercourses, ruined crops and killed cattle (Chronicum Scotorum, p 329: Annals of Inisfallen, 1129: 9, p 293).
1063 or 1064. Extreme heat in Baghdad from October till December, and in the following January the Tigris river froze and a large amount of snow fell on Baghdad (Chronography of Gregory Abu’l-Faraj, p 216).
1052. A great wind struck Ireland and England on 21 December, and was followed by an intensely windy midwinter (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p 182: Annals of Inisfallen, 1052: 4, p 213).
773. Great drought and “heat of the sun” greatly reduced the grain harvest in Ireland (Annals of Ulster, vol. 1. p 227).
683/84. A freezing winter in which the narrows between Ireland and Scotland were frozen or filled with sea-ice (Annals of the Four Masters, vol. 1, p 291: Chronicum Scotorum, p 113).
588 or 589 or 591. A hot and dry summer recorded from Ireland, with slight chronological errors (Chronicum Scotorum, p 63: Annals of Ulster, 589: 3, vol. 1. p 95: Annals of Inisfallen, 591, p 79).
The above is prelude to remarks about a recent publication by James Hansen, titled : Perceptions of climate change: the new climate dice. This paper includes the following text on page 1:
We conclude that extreme heat waves, such as that in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, were “caused” by global warming, because their likelihood was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.
The above statement, as far as the Russian heatwave of 2010 is concerned, may well be falsified by Russian historical records. Between 1223 and 1430, there are several events recorded in Russian historical texts that, in their essentials, resemble the Russian summer heatwave and fires of 2010.
The years and events are —
1223. “It was very hot and many woods, forests and marshes burned, and the smoke was so dense that people could see nothing. The smoke above the ground was so dense that birds could not see to fly in the air, so would fall to the ground and die, and all kinds of wild beasts entered the cities and towns (because of the forest fires), unnoted by the people. Everyone was seized by fear and fright.” (Nikonian Chronicle, vol. 2, year 6731, pp 282-283.)
1298. “The same year there was a great drought and the forests, swamps, marshes and fields burned. There was great need for everything, and many cattle died.” (Nikonian Chronicle, vol. 3, year 6806, p 86.)
1325. “The same year there was a great drought and many marshy places dried out and the forests and marshes burned up.” (Nikonian Chronicle, vol. 3, year 6833, p 118.)
1335. “The same year, for our sins, there were great fires in Russia; Moscow, Vologda, Vitebsk were burnt, and Yurev of the Nemtsy [Germanic foreigners] was entirely burnt down…” (Chronicle of Novgorod, A.D. 1335, A.M. 6843, pp 129-130.) [Note that his account only mentions urban fires.]
1364. “The same year there was a bad drought throughout the whole country, the air was filled with smoke and the (dry) earth burned.” (Nikonian Chronicle, vol. 3, year 6872, p 194.) [This account and the two that follow may all be the same event, due to chronological errors in the texts.]
1365. “The same year there was a portent in the sky. The sun was the colour of blood; and black spots were on the sun, and fog remained half of the summer. Then there was great heat, and it was so hot that the forests and marshes burned, and the rivers dried out. Some watering places dried out completely and everyone was terrified, alarmed and greatly aggrieved…The same year there was a conflagration in Moscow because there was great drought and great heat; and at that time a storm with a tornado arose, spreading fire everywhere, and many people were killed and burned, and everything burned up and disappeared. It was called the “Great Fire”, which started near the Church of All Saints and which spread everywhere, carried by the wind and the tornado.” (Nikonian Chronicle, vol. 3, year 6873, pp 194-195.) [This account, and the one of 1371, mention the sighting of sunspots, a testament to the quantity of smoke in the air.]
1366. “There was a portent in the sky…The same year there were drought and extreme heat; and there was smoke in the air, and the earth burned and the grain was very dear everywhere; and there was great famine throughout the land, people dying because of it.” (Nikonian Chronicle, vol. 3, year 6874, pp 197-198.)
1371. “The same year there was a portent on the sun. There were black spots on the sun which looked like nails and there was such deep darkness that people could not see two yards ahead of them. Many people would fall, hitting their faces, or bump their heads against each other, and birds in the air could not see but would fall to the earth from the air, striking men’s heads. And so the beasts — such as bears, wolves, foxes and others — which could not see would walk into the towns and cities, mixing with people.
“There was a bad drought and great heat, and it was so warm that people took fright and trembled. Many rivers dried up and even the marshes dried out and would burn, and the earth burned, and there was fear and trembling. Grain was very costly, and there was famine throughout the whole land…The same year there was a conflagration in Novgorod the Great.” (Nikonian Chronicle, vol. 3, year 6879, p 213.)
1430. “The same autumn the water was exceeding low; the soil and the forests burned, and very much smoke, some times people could not see each other, and fish and birds died from that smoke; the fish stank of the smoke, for two years.” (Chronicle of Novgorod, A.D. 1430, A.M. 6938, p 193.)
The above descriptions from medieval Russia include one, of 1355, that only mentions the burning of urban centres. But it would be unlikely for such a cluster of urban fires to occur without a dry and prolonged, or intense, summer season. Urban fires otherwise tend to be single events within a given year within a primary historical source.
Apart from that, the other accounts describe excessive heat, dry conditions, forest and marsh fires, confused and disoriented wildlife, limited visibility, and great and prolonged palls of smoke that on two occasions dimmed the sun so that sunspots were visible to the naked eye.
See http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/08/russian_wildfires.html for graphic images of the 2010 Russian fires, as a comparison. In their essentials, the medieval events appear to resemble the 2010 event.
So, between 1233 and 1430 there appear to be at least six events that resemble the Russian fires of 2010. This assumes that the events of 1364, 1365 and 1366 are the same event, and this also omits the event of 1335, which only mentions urban fires.
The Russian heatwave and fires of 2010 can only be seen as unprecedented in the absence of historical documentation.
Finally, I have no idea of the frequency of this type of extreme events after 1430, since I’m not familiar with historical sources from that period.
Annals of Inisfallen (MS. Rawlinson B. 503). Trans. S. Mac Airt, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin (1988).
Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters from the earliest period to the year 1616. Trans. J. O’Donovan, seven vols., Hodges, Smith and Co., Dublin (1854), reprinted by AMS Press Inc., New York (1966).
Annals of Ulster. (TO A.D. 1131). Part I, Text and Translation. Trans. and Eds. S. Mac Airt and G. Mac Niocaill. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (1983).
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Ed. and trans. M. Swanton, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London (1996).
Chronicle of London From 1089 to 1483, Written in the Fifteenth Century, From Manuscripts in the British Museum. Photoreduced reprint by Llanerch Publishers, Felinach (1995), original published by Richard Taylor, Printer, Shoe Lane, London (1827).
Chronicle of Novgorod. trans. R. Michell and N. Forbes, Camden Third Series vol. 25, Camden Society, London (1914).
Chronicum Scotorum, a chronicle of Irish affairs, from the earliest times to A.D. 1135; with a supplement containing the events from 1141 to 1150. Trans. W. M. Hennessy, Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, London (1866).
Chronography of Gregory Abu’l-Faraj, 1225-1286, the son of Aaron, the Hebrew physician commonly known as Bar Hebraeus. trans. E. A. W. Budge, two volumes, Oxford University Press (1932), reprinted by Philo press (1976).
Hall’s Chronicle Containing the History of England during the Reign of Henry the Fourth and the Succeeding Monarchs to the end of the Reign of Henry the Eighth…carefully collated with the editions of 1548 and 1550. Printed for J. Johnson; F. C. and J. Rivington; T. Payne; Wilkie and Robinson; Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme; Cadell and Davies; and J. Mawman. G. Woodfall, Printer, Paternoster-row, London (1809).
Nikonian Chronicle. Trans. S. A. and B. J. Zenkovsky, 3 vols., The Kingston Press, Princeton, New jersey (1984 and 1986).
Bell W.T. and Oglvie E.J. (1978). Weather Compilations as a Source of Data for the Reconstruction of European Climate During the Medieval Period. Climatic Change 1, pp 331-348.
Brayne M. (2002). The greatest Storm. Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill.
Doe R. (2006). Extreme Floods. Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill.
Nicolson J. (2006). The Perfect Summer. John Murray, London.
Biographical note: Paul Farquharson is a postgraduate student in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Australia
JC note: Paul emailed this essay to me, which I was obviously interested in because of the 2010 Russian heat wave. I would like to see much more of this sort of study that provides information about historical extreme weather/climate events. This essay is a guest post, and implies no endorsement of its statements by me.