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5 Ways that Weather Shaped the Course of Human Events
October 19, 2016
Here are five big moments in history that were shaped and affected by the weather.
Weather affects us all nearly every day. Whether it is the thunderstorm that dampens our picnic, the snow and ice that make our drive to work take longer, the cold spell that requires our children to bundle up for school, or an event like the California drought that increases food prices, the weather impacts all of us directly all of the time.
Most of us know that it was a change in the climate, caused by either an extraterrestrial impact or a massive bout of volcanism, that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, rise of the mammals, and, eventually, emergence of humans. But, since that time, weather and climate have also played a critical role in numerous events that have dramatically changed the course of human history. Here are—in my opinion—5 of the top 10:
1. a.d. 541: Rain After Drought Brings First Bubonic Plague Epidemic
The first recorded bubonic plague epidemic occurred around 541, killing nearly half the people in the Roman Empire and changing the balance of power around the world.
A cold period and severe drought in Africa in the 530s ended with flooding rains. The drought killed crops, along with most of the gerbils and mice, an event which then killed off the larger predators that normally would have eaten the rodents.
When the drought ended, the rain brought plant life back, which enabled rodents to replace their population. Because the larger predators took longer to grow back, the rodents were able to multiply, overrunning East Africa with mice and gerbils that were carriers of the plague.
Merchant ships brought these rodents to Europe, bringing an illness that would spread throughout the known world, laying waste to cities, and leaving so many corpses piled up that there were not enough people left to bury them.
2. 1692: Little Ice Age Spurs Salem Witch Trials
The cold weather of the “Little Ice Age” may have led to the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692, as witches were thought capable of controlling weather.
The cold weather brought crop failures, resulting in hardships, and witch hunts may have occurred because people sought scapegoats to blame. Some diaries and sermons dating from this period suggest that the unfavorable weather was the main cause for the prosecutions.
While Salem is the best-known “witch trial” city, there were also numerous witch trials in Europe during the 1680–1730 cold spell of the “Little Ice Age.”
3. 1937: Hindenburg Explosion Changes Future of Air Travel
Back in the 1920s and ’30s, dirigibles looked like the air transportation of the future. Yet the era of the airship ended abruptly on May 6, 1937, when the Hindenburg burst into flames during a landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey.
The Hindenburg’s covering was made of a very flammable mixture, similar in composition to rocket fuel. On the day in question, the airship circled the Lakehurst airport for more than an hour, waiting for the weather to clear. This long time moving through the rain clouds caused the dirigible’s skin to become negatively charged, and when the crew dropped the wet lines to dock, they acted as a ground, causing the Hindenburg’s coating to ignite, along with the highly flammable hydrogen used to keep it aloft. Within seconds, most of the ship was ablaze, and 34 seconds later it was a burning mass on the ground.
Up until the Hindenburg’s dramatic explosion, many considered dirigibles to be the future of commercial air travel. Quieter, roomier, and more luxurious than airplanes, they nonetheless succumbed to the danger of their highly flammable fuel.
One other note is that hydrogen was used instead of safe helium because the United States had a monopoly on the world supply of helium and, fearful that other countries might use the gas for military purposes, had banned its export. If not for this ban, we might be flying in dirigibles today.
4. 1789: Weather Helps Cause the French Revolution
The “Little Ice Age” helped cause more than witch trials; it was a major contributor to the unrest that led to the French Revolution. The cold temperatures of the “Little Ice Age” combined with a 1783 Icelandic volcanic eruption and a major El Niño to bring drought and crop failures to Europe. The French were already suffering from higher taxes that had been raised to support the American Revolution. A cycle of drought and then fierce hailstorms and flooding between 1787 and 1788 served as the final straw leading to the most historic “storm” of all, the storming of the Bastille.
5. 1980: Iranian Haboob Cancels Hostage Rescue and Spurs Reagan Victory Over Carter
Those of us old enough to remember the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1980 know that as it dragged on over months, it severely damaged President Jimmy Carter’s standing with voters in the upcoming presidential election. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran’s new supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had held 52 American embassy workers as hostages. On April 24, 1980, a daring helicopter rescue was attempted. Some of the fleet’s helicopters were quickly sidelined with mechanical problems, but the final straw was a severe dust storm, known as a haboob, that aborted the mission. Not only were the hostages still held, but eight servicemen were killed in the aborted mission, and the hostages were dispersed to multiple locations to prevent the possibility of a future rescue attempt.
Khomeini condemned Jimmy Carter and, in a speech after the incident, credited God with throwing sand to protect Iran. Carter himself blamed his loss in the 1980 U.S. presidential election to Ronald Reagan mainly on his failure to win the release of U.S. hostages held captive in Iran.
These moments reflect major incidents that have occurred across the globe all because of weather. How has weather affected your hometown’s history? Use our Weather History Tool to find out!