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Weather bothers

... was a small-time occupation of the eccentric scientist just 20 years ago

 
By Peter B Stone
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015 | 11:25:17 AM

-- (Credit: Pradip Saha)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 Christmas Carol.

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."

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