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Researching the Record of Historical Storms

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A key aspect of our work on the CHERISH project focuses on the record of past storminess. Sediment records from lakes, bogs and sand dunes can be used to reconstruct periods of increased storm activity extending back several millennia. For the more recent, historical period, documentary records provide valuable insights into past weather extremes. Archival work is an absorbing experience. It is a privilege to handle documents that may be several hundred years old, carefully curated and catalogued by archivists. Thanks to the huge efforts by repositories to digitise and make content like the fantastic Welsh Newspapers Online resource available, we can continue to make progress with this work from our homes.

Storms have played an important role in the history of weather forecasting. On the night of 25th October, 1859, a terrific storm wreaked havoc around the coast of Wales, with many ships wrecked and the loss of around 800 lives. More than 400 people were killed on one ship alone – The Royal Charter the name by which the storm is now known. On its return journey from Australia to Liverpool, the ship was dashed against rocks off the coast of Anglesey, within sight of the village of Moelfre. The devastating toll led to the development of a network of storm forecasting stations under the leadership of Captain Robert Fitzroy, laying the groundwork for what we know as the Met Office today. On January 31st 1953, a devastating storm surge in the North Sea caused extensive flooding and loss of live along the east coast of England, Belgium and the Netherlands. Following that storm, the UK National Tide Gauge Network was established. These developments in response to extreme events have meant that we are much better prepared for the impacts of coastal storms and storm surges today.

Photograph of the effects of the winter storms in 2013-2014 on the coastal town of Aberystwyth.
Photograph of the effects of the winter storms in 2013-2014 on the coastal town of Aberystwyth.

The winter of 2013-14 was the stormiest on record in Ireland and the UK. Storm after storm threw our home town of Aberystwyth into the media spotlight, and most of the beach onto the prom – bringing debates about the links between climate change and weather extremes closer to home. As the climate becomes warmer and sea levels rise, we can expect increased impacts from storm activity. A historical perspective helps to place the pace of current changes we are experiencing within a longer term context. During lockdown, the hugely successful ‘Rainfall Rescue’ project harnessed the power of almost 16,000 volunteers to transcribe historical rainfall observations from across the UK. The millions of data points retrieved can now be used to examine long term trends and spatial patterns in rainfall as well as individual extremes. The importance of historical meteorological observations in improving our understanding of past storms is explained in this analysis of the February 1903 ‘Ulysses Storm’ which swept across Ireland and Scotland.

Narrative accounts such as diaries, correspondence, parish records and newspapers provide rich resources for examining the impacts of past weather. The Llên Natur project has amassed an impressive collection of historical weather records in their Tywyddiadur database, whilst the Tempest database focuses on narrative accounts of weather extremes from across the UK. These rich descriptive accounts can help us to understand more about the severity and spatial extent of individual events as well as the impacts on coastal communities. The devastating storm that struck Ireland on 6th and 7th January, 1839 is known as Oíche na Gaoithe Móire – The Night of the Big Wind. The national memory of the terrible destruction and loss of life has been passed down through generations, woven into folklore, poetry and paintings. While the devastating impacts of that night are well known in Ireland, documentary records also point to significant damage around the Welsh coast, particularly across North Wales.

The diaries of William Bulkeley of Brynddu, Llanfechell, on Anglesey from 1734-43 and 1747-1760 are held in the archive of Bangor University and are available to read online. They are a valuable resource on 18th century life on Anglesey but also contain daily descriptions of the weather. On November 1st, 1740, he notes that ‘it blew a dreadfull Hurricane, throwing down & tearing ye slates from the Roof of Houses, breaking Hay & Corn Stacks…’ Three days later, he reports that a ship had been wrecked during the storm at Holyhead, with all lives lost and a further two at Beaumaris. There are numerous accounts of storms in Bulkeley’s diaries. These provide a valuable insight into weather history on Anglesey, one of our key study areas, prior to the establishment of more systematic meteorological recording from the mid-19th century.

From the 19th century, newspaper records provide a rich archive of information about community responses to weather extremes. Borth and Ynyslas, to the north of Aberystwyth suffered regularly from storm damage and flooding. Following a terrible storm in October 1896, the community began raising funds to build sea defences. The storm itself had far reaching impacts around Cardigan Bay, with the Cambrian Railway washed away in places, extensive damage and flooding in many towns and villages and loss at sea. Groynes were built to protect Borth, but these were then washed away in another ferocious storm in December 1910. Storms are often remembered for the damage and loss inflicted. However, documentary accounts also record tales of individual bravery, community and institutional responses, often demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity. They remind us of the ever changing, dynamic nature of these environments – something that coastal communities have been living with for a very long time.

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