IN THE latest edition of the British Royal Geographical Society's
prestigious Geographical Journal, the title of the opening article reads "An Amazing and Portentous Summer". For a scientific article, the title is highly coloured, especially because the
summer in question was as far back as 1873. The subject is
social and environmental responses to the eruption of an
Icelandic volcano. The abstract says that there was a "variety of
human responses to the weather conditions ranging from
panic to attempts to find a scientific explanation".
It is yet one more astonishing sea change in the fortunes of
a once despised and obscure speciality. When the United
Nations Stockholm Environmental Conference was held in
1972, nobody discussed climate, as then, environment was all
about pollution, DDT and growth limits. But curiously, it was a
summer of most extreme weather. The heather caught fire in
hot sun far north of Moscow, it showered where it never did
before in several arid places, and Stockholm itself was warm.
A journalist rang up the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva and inquired about the changing climate. The hushed reply was that the WMO had nothing to say
since these inquiries were, well, not really main-line meteorological science. But there was 'somebody' called Huger Lamb
who might help, but, "don't say who suggested his name.
You'll find him in the British Met Office, but he may be at the
Climatic Research Unit in East Anglia University - it's new".
That is how a person, now regarded as a distinguished pioneer of a study so vital to our survival on earth, was seen only
20 odd years ago. In fact, it was worse. The story (probably a
little apocryphal but fun to retell) goes that Professor Lamb
arrived back at the Met Office after a visit to Holland. His misfortune was to come back the very day they were unwrapping
the latest and the biggest Cray super computer. The world's
biggest and fastest number cruncher at that time, it promised
to extend by a couple of days the scope of domestic weather
forecast. Mathematicians were talking animatedly about programming problems. And they welcomed Lamb back,
but ... oh, where had he been? In the Riks Museum - looking
at Breughel landscapes with their painstaking detail of
weather background: how thickly frozen were the ponds, how
long were the icicles, was there a thaw, what was the time
depicted and what all could the paintings say about the Great
Winter of 1554-55. He was most interested in the changing
pattern of "White" Christmases in European history up to the
time Charles Dickens chronicled it in the 1830s in his book A
One can imagine the excitement of electronic egg-heads
about climatic research, paleoatmospheres, tree rings - all
that curious stuff. And Lamb had famously reconstructed the
weather map used at the time of the Spanish Armada and
shown that Sir Francis Drake had a little help.
In another journal, of the Geological Society, we find the
climate people saying that the warm Cretaceous period
appears to have been not so warm at high latitudes. Oxygen
isotope ratios in the carbonate powder ground out of fossils of
molluscs show that the sea temperature must have been
between 6.7*c and 10.1'c, and suggest that high latitude
glaciation in the south might have been active during a period
of "greenhouse" condition. Icebergs must have relieved the
heat. Whether there was pleasure or panic among the
dinosaurs will never be known!
But there was certainly panic among the dwellers of
Leicester in England when, unknown to all but Icelanders, the
Laki fissure began to erupt on June 3, 1783. It continued to
spew out lava until February 8 next year. At Leicester, "lightning exhibited a wonderful spectacle of dreadful magnificence; before 11 o'clock, the whole firmament appeared on
fire ... This scene of inconceivable horror continued for nearly
an hour", reported one newspaper.
The phenomenon was also reported from Italy and Spain,
and the top of the Alps. In Iceland, three quarters of the livestock died, followed by an estimated 24 per cent of the human
population. Only now have climatologists dug out the records
and reconstructed the probables: time chart, the probable path
of the volcanic debris, and effect on Europe's climate. Let's be
grateful - if something similar should happen again, the
world will have a supply of climatological Sherlock Holmeses
to allay fears and permit the authorities to utter the standard
assurance, "there is no cause for alarm."