Weather's Important Role in Religious History | Almanac.com

Weather's Important Role in Religious History

Photo Credit
Noah's Ark by Edward Hicks, 1846. Public Domain.

Faith and the Firmament

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Throughout history, religious milestones and unusual weather events and natural phenomena have often coincided. Whether you believe in the divine or not, it can be interesting to contemplate the connections. 

Noah’s Ark

Perhaps the best-known biblical story about the weather is that of Noah’s Ark, with 40 days and 40 nights of rain causing a world-engulfing flood. Geologists have found sediment layers that suggest that 7,500 years ago, Mediterranean water roared into the Black Sea, bringing a devastating flood to the region.

Parting of the Red Sea

According to a NASA computer model, at the time of the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus from Egypt by Moses and the Israelites, a similar event may have occurred in the eastern Nile Delta, at a body of water called the Lake of Tanis.

Revelations of Muhammad

In some ways, the success of Muhammad (570–632) in founding Islam in the early 7th century may have been aided by weather events that preceded him. 

In 530 a.d., Halley’s Comet passed close to Earth and the Sun, releasing a dust veil into Earth’s atmosphere that lasted for several years and reduced the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface. Just 5 years later, the volcano Krakatoa (in what is now Indonesia) had a major eruption, and this further reduced the amount of sunlight. Records show that the years 535–536 had the most severe and protracted Northern Hemisphere cooling episodes of the past 2,000 years, with temperatures dropping as much as 10°F globally, which caused widespread crop failures and famines.

At the same time, severe drought in northern and eastern Africa also killed crops, and this unleashed a chain reaction in the ecosystem. Gerbils and mice that normally fed on the crops died, and the larger predators that normally would have eaten the rodents also died. When the drought ended a few years later, increased rainfall restored plant life, and the fast-breeding gerbils were able to rapidly repopulate their numbers. Because the larger predators took longer to repopulate, the rodents were able to multiply far beyond their previous numbers. As a result, for a few years, East Africa was overrun by mice and gerbils, which were carriers of the bubonic plague but immune to it themselves.

Infected rodents traveled to Europe on merchant ships and rapidly spread the Plague throughout Europe in 541. The effects ravished the Roman Empire, killing half of its inhabitants and thereby changing the global balance of power. It has been estimated that 25 to 50 million people died in that plague—one-eighth to one-quarter of Earth’s population at the time and equivalent to 1 to 2 billion people today.

This decimation, among other causes, weakened the Roman Empire to such an extent that Arab armies were able to conquer much of what remained of it, thus creating conditions conducive to the revelations of Muhammad.


“Divine Wind” That Saved Japan from Kublai Khan

Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, united China to form the Yuan Dynasty under his rule. He then decided to conquer the islands of Japan. In October 1274, after his demands for immediate surrender went unanswered, Kublai attacked Japan with 40,000 men and 900 ships. The Japanese defended with 10,000 men. 

All signs pointed to a rout of the Japanese defenders; the Chinese attackers had better weapons and a more suitable fighting style. But just as the Chinese forces were about to land in Japan, a powerful typhoon struck the coast and destroyed the attackers’ fleet and most of their army. (A typhoon is the name for a hurricane when it occurs in the western Pacific region.) Shinto priests, who believed that the storms were the result of prayer, called them kamikaze, or “divine wind.”

If the Chinese had had greater knowledge of tropical storms and their seasonality and had picked a different time of year for the invasion, the results would likely have been very different—as would be the Asian, and even world, history that followed. Seven years later, Kublai Khan brought together a force of 140,000 soldiers and 4,400 vessels to take the islands once and for all, but again, nature intervened: A furious storm wrecked 95 percent of the Chinese ships and left the survivors as little match for the Japanese.


A Volcanic Eruption and Joseph Smith

The volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora (in what is now Indonesia) on April 5–15, 1815—the world’s largest volcanic eruption since 180 A.D.—contributed to the so-called “Year Without a Summer,” the unusual cold and snow that occurred from May to August of 1816 across the northeastern United States, Europe, and Asia. The cool-down resulted in crop failures, famine, epidemics, riots, arson, looting, and deaths. In America during July 1816, lakes and rivers in northwestern Pennsylvania froze, snow fell on Long Island, and several killing frosts occurred across most of New England.

Because of the severe cold, many New Englanders left the area, including the family of Joseph Smith, which moved from New Hampshire to Palmyra, New York. In 1823, Smith found the plates of the Book of Mormon in nearby Manchester, which led to him eventually founding The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Now read about the critical role weather played in wartime history.

About The Author

Michael Steinberg

Mike Steinberg is Senior Vice President for Special Initiatives at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. Read More from Michael Steinberg