Why you should care
Because they have a reason to talk about the weather.
He thought it was just a dream, his being lifted by a force so great that he levitated. But then he snapped awake, finding himself on his bed and in the street, looking up through a gaping hole in the bedroom ceiling. The man, identified only as Mr. Hempson, had been propelled out of his slumber by one of the most violent storms to hit Britain in living memory.
The extreme cyclone’s winds reached 80 miles per hour, tearing across central and southern England on Nov. 26, 1703, and ripping up everything in its path. It killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people, many of whom drowned, along with thousands of cattle and sheep. It flattened 2,000 chimney stacks, crushed church steeples and lifted the lead roofing off London’s Westminster Abbey as if it were paper. Mr. Hempson, who was staying at Bell Savage Inn, in central London, was one of the lucky few to survive the night’s terror. He was, after all, “an accident worthy of remembrance,” according to An Exact Relation of the Late Dreadful Tempest, a collection of eyewitness accounts of the storm. Mr. Hempson had avoided “the eminent danger the Hand of Heaven has preserved him from, when nothing but Death was to be expected.”
It was a perfect storm of very high pressure centered over England, similar to an average tropical hurricane.
For two weeks, there had been warnings overhead. A deep purple-gray sky darkened London, and there was atmospheric grumbling and moaning as winds roared, causing a localized storm just the week before. But that night, as the clock approached midnight, something was different: The wind shrieked, homes rattled and approaching gusts “sounded like deep, booming thunder, striking terror into the hearts of all who heard them,” wrote Daniel Defoe in The Storm, which documents about 60 individual accounts of the disaster and is widely regarded as one of the first examples of modern journalism.
At around 2 a.m., the storm unleashed its full fury, and multiple tornadoes circled London and southern England, causing mass devastation. Ships were blown hundreds of miles off-course, with several ending up as far away as Norway. “It was a perfect storm centered over England, similar to an average tropical hurricane,” says Patrick Nobbs, author of The Story of the British and Their Weather, a 6,000-year history of Britain’s weather. The sheer number killed exceeds even that of Hurricane Katrina, one of the five biggest storms in U.S. history, which took an estimated 1,836 lives, and it’s been only marginally matched by a widely unexpected storm in Britain in 1987, which caused close to $17 billion worth of damage in today’s currency, but resulted in just 22 deaths. The Great Storm of 1703’s equivalent fatalities today would be a whopping quarter of a million. “It’s so far from anything we’ve experienced since, and so far from what was probably experienced in written records before, that it stands out as the most extreme storm,” Nobbs says.
But for the thousands who saw a quite literal rain cloud hanging over them, this was God’s judgment. An undertone of superstition and fear runs through many of the eyewitness accounts, with Defoe including a quote from the Book of Nahum on the title page of The Storm: “The Lord hath his way in the whirlwind, and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.” Many writers of the time understood the storm as a “providential storm, akin to the whirlwind with which God once punished the people of Judea,” writes Alexandra Harris, in Weatherland: Writer & Artists Under English Skies. Poet Anne Finch described the storm with a multitude of biblical metaphors. “[Finch’s] wind is a prowling sleuth, uncovering iniquity, throwing down walls to find inhabitants in various compromising positions,” Harris writes. “There are ‘men in wine, or looser pleasures drown’d,’ who reel in drunken giddiness as their mansions fall.”
A few philosophers — what were called scientists at the time — saw reasons beyond religion for the weather. For all the scientific advancements of the era, including the naming of gases and human organs, and developments in the fields of geology and botany, the sky was the last part of nature to be classified, says Peter Moore, author of The Weather Experiment, an account of the meteorologists who decoded the skies with observation and measurement. “The sky is seen as the last realm of chaos,” he says. “If a storm is over your head, it looks like it’s centered on you, and people interpreted [it] that way.”
It wasn’t until the invention of the electric telegraph in 1835 that the modern age of weather forecasting began and reports of weather conditions from a wide area could be received almost instantaneously. Yet history has shown that despite humanity’s best efforts, atmospheric changes remain hard to predict.