July 13, 1908 Apocalypse

In 2018, the non-profit B612 Foundation dedicated to the study of near-Earth object impacts, reported that “It’s a 100 per cent certain we’ll be hit [by a devastating asteroid]”. Comfortingly, the organization’s statement concluded “we’re [just] not 100 per cent sure when.”

The first atomic bomb in the history of human conflict exploded in the skies over Japan on August 6, 1945. The bomb, code named “Little Boy”, reached an altitude of 1,900-feet over the city of Hiroshima at 8:15am, Japanese Standard Time.

A “gun-triggered” fission bomb, barometric-pressure sensors initiated the explosion of four cordite charges, propelling a small “bullet” of enriched uranium the length of a fixed barrel and into a sphere of the same material. Within picoseconds (1/.000000000001 of a second), the collision of the two bodies initiated a fission reaction, releasing an energy yield roughly equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.

66,000 were killed outright by the effects of the blast. The shock wave spread outward at a velocity greater than the speed of sound, flattening virtually everything in its path for a mile in all directions.

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Thirty-seven years before, the boreal forests of Siberia lit up with an explosion 1,000 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. At the time, no one had the foggiest notion that it was coming.

The Taiga occupies the high latitudes of the world’s northern regions, a vast international beltline of coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches between the high tundra, and the temperate forest.  An enormous community of plants and animals, this trans-continental ecosystem comprises a vast biome, second only to the world’s oceans.

The Eastern Taiga is a region in the east of Siberia, an area 1.6 times the size of the continental United States.  The Stony Tunguska River wends its way along an 1,160-mile length of the region, its entire course flowing under great pebble fields with no open water.

Tunguska

On the morning of June 30, 1908, the Tunguska River lit up with a bluish-white light.  At 7:17a local time, a column of light too bright to look at with the naked eye moved across the skies above the Tunguska. Minutes later, a vast explosion knocked people off their feet, flattening buildings, crops and as many as 80 million trees over an area 830 miles, square. A vast “thump” was heard, the shock wave equivalent to an earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale. Within minutes came a second and then a third shock wave and finally a fourth, more distant this time and described by eyewitnesses as the “sun going to sleep”.

On July 13, 1908, the Krasnoyaretz newspaper reported “At 7:43 the noise akin to a strong wind was heard. Immediately afterward a horrific thump sounded, followed by an earthquake that literally shook the buildings as if they were hit by a large log or a heavy rock”.

Fluctuations in atmospheric pressure were detectable as far away as Great Britain.  Night skies were set aglow from Asia to Europe for days on end, theorized to have been caused by light, passing through high-altitude ice particles.

In the United States, lookout posts from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles recorded a several months-long decrease in atmospheric transparency, attributed to an increase in dust, suspended in the atmosphere.

The “Tunguska Event” was the largest such impact event in recorded history, but far from the first. Or the last.  Mistastin Lake in northern Labrador was formed during the Eocene era 36-million years ago, cubic Zirconium deposits suggesting an impact-zone temperature of some 4,300° Fahrenheit. 

That’s halfway to the temperature, of the sun.

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“A bolide – a very bright meteor of an apparent magnitude of &−14 or brighter” H/T Wikimedia

Some sixty-six million years ago, the “Chicxulub impactor” struck the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, unleashing a mega-tsunami of 330-feet in height from Texas to Florida. Superheated steam, ash and vapor towered over the impact zone, as colossal shock waves triggered global earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.   Vast clouds of dust blotted out the sun for months on end leading to mass extinction events, the world over.

The official history of the Ming Dynasty records the Ch’ing-yang event of 1490, a meteor shower in China in which “stones fell like rain”. Some 10,000 people were killed for all intents and purposes, stoned to death.

In 2013, a twenty-meter (66-foot) space rock estimated at 13,000-14,000 tons flashed across the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia, breaking apart with a kinetic impact estimated at 26-times the nuclear blast over Hiroshima.  This Superbolide (a bolide is “an extremely bright meteor, especially one that explodes in the atmosphere”) entered the earth’s atmosphere on February 15, burning exposed skin and damaging retinas for miles around.  No fatalities were reported though 1,500 were injured seriously enough to require medical attention.

The 450-ton Chicora Meteor collided with western Pennsylvania on June 24, 1938, in a cataclysm comparable to the Halifax Explosion of 1917.  The good luck held, that time, the object making impact in a sparsely populated region.  The only reported casualty, was a cow.  Investigators F.W. Preston, E.P. Henderson and James R. Randolph remarked that “If it had landed on Pittsburgh there would have been few survivors”.

In 2018, the non-profit B612 Foundation dedicated to the study of near-Earth object impacts, reported that “It’s a 100 per cent certain we’ll be hit [by a devastating asteroid]”. Comfortingly, the organization’s statement concluded “we’re [just] not 100 per cent sure when.”

Impact_event

It puts a lot of things into perspective.

May 12, 1864 A Mighty Oak

Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

According to legend, the infant Temujin was born sometime between 1155 and 1162 with a blood clot clutched in his fist, the size of a knucklebone. Mongol folklore holds such a sign to be prophetic. That one day the child would grow to be a great leader. Today we remember the young boy Temujin as the great and terrible chieftain, Genghis Khan.

Around that time some 6,500 miles to the west, an acorn sprouted from the soil in a place we now call Wyllys Hyll in Hartford, Connecticut. Through countless summers and frigid winters the sapling grew and transformed to become a mighty oak tree. Dutch explorer Adrian Block described the tree in a log, written in 1614. Twenty years later, local natives spoke with Samuel Wyllys, an early settler who had cleared the ground around it. Tribal elders spoke of this oak and its ceremonial planting, all those centuries before. They pleaded with Wyllys to preserve the great tree.

“It has been the guide of our ancestors for centuries as to the time of planting our corn; when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ears, then is the time to put the seed into the ground”.

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Hat Tip to photographer Robert Fawcett for this image, of a mighty oak

In 1662 Governor John Winthrop won from King Charles II a charter, legitimizing the settlements of Connecticut and establishing the colonists’ right, of self-rule. Twenty five years later, King James II wanted the New England and New York colonies integrated under central authority and sought to rescind, the charter. Sir Edmund Andros, hand selected to rule over this “Dominion of New England” marched on Hartford at the head of an armed force to seize the charter.

The next part fades into legend but the story is, that Governor Robert Treat and a group of colonists sat glaring across the table at Andros, and a group of his allies. The charter lay between them, on a table. The debate raged for hours when, somehow, the lights went out. On relighting the candles only moments later King Charles’ charter, was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth had snatched up the parchment and stashed it in a hollow, in that great old tree.

Fun Fact: The timber from 2,000 southern live oak trees was harvested in Georgia and used to construct the hulls of USS Constitution and five other US Navy frigates, constructed under the Naval Act of 1794. Today, “Old Ironsides” is the oldest commissioned warship on the planet, still afloat.

Despite all that the politicians folded and Andros made his appointments, but colonists never did vote to submit. With the Spring of 1689 came news of the Glorious Revolution, in England. King James had fled to France and Edmund Andros was arrested. So it is the New England colonies held and kept their independence. The “Charter Oak” depicted at the top of this page remains to this day, a part of our colonial history.

The majestic old tree blew over in a storm in 1856 when firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt sent a marching band to play funeral dirges, over its fallen timbers.

Live Oaks line the entrance to the Wormsloe Plantation, in Savannah, Georgia

From the frigid forests of the north to the beaches of our southern coasts some 90 species of oak tree stand as part of our personal memories, and our American history. The Water Oak shading the Brown Chapel African Methodist Church in Selma Alabama, where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “We Shall Overcome” speech before setting out on a 50-mile march, to Montgomery. The Overcup Oak beside the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. As a child, Helen Keller once climbed the branches of a 100-year-old Water Oak.

Descendants of these trees and hundreds more stand today at our nation’s most hallowed ground at Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington National Cemetery and Arboreta

Not far away, the Smithsonian owns another oak or, more accurately, the stump of a tree hewn to the ground, by gunfire.

Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.

The 16th President of the United States once said of general Ulysses Grant “I need this man. He fights”. A succession of Generals had failed in the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, but not Grant. You knock him down and he’ll dust off, and keep coming at you.

Following a terrible draw at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s army disengaged from that of Robert E. Lee and moved southeast, hoping to draw the Confederates into battle under more favorable conditions. It was a race to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Elements of Lee’s forces won the race and began to entrench. Off and on fighting began on May 8 and lasted, through May 21.

On May 12 some 1,200 Confederate troops waited in that once quiet meadow, sheltered behind an earthwork and timber revetment shaped, like a mule’s shoe. At the center stood that majestic oak. Some 5,000 Union troops assaulted the position from the Army of the Potomac. Some of the most savage and sustained fighting of the Civil War raged on all sides, of that tree. When it was over some twenty hours later that mighty oak, was no more. The tree was felled by small arms fire at a place we remember, as the “Bloody Angle’.

Both sides declared victory at Spotsylvania Courthouse and the war moved on. To places called Yellow Tavern (May 11), Meadow Bridge (May 12), North Anna (May 23–26), and others. By late June, Lee was forced into the nightmare position of defending the Confederate Capital, at Richmond.

Taken together Grant’s “Overland Campaign” carried out over those six bloody weeks in May and June resulted in some of the highest casualties, of the Civil War. Casualties crippling to Federal troops but in the end mortal, to the cause of southern independence.

Overland map, May and June, 1864

The modern mind is left only to contemplate, perhaps over the image of that tree stump. To imagine, what it all sounded like. What it all looked like. What it all smelled like.

That tree stump is all that remains of the apocalypse of May 12, of an oak tree surrounded by the cataclysm of Civil War and carried out inside a meadow, shaped like a mule’s shoe.

H/T Smithsonian, for this image of a once majestic oak tree. Felled, one bullet at a time, near a place called Spotsylvania.

Afterward

Many among us trace our personal ancestry, through the Civil War. For 52nd North Carolina infantry soldier James Tyner, the war came to an end in Spotsylvania Court House.

Tyner was captured and moved to the Federal prison camp in Elmira New York known as “Hellmira”.

There my own twice-great grandfather would spend the rest of the war, or most of it. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant only twenty-seven days later, at a place called Appomattox.

January 19, 1810 Cold Friday

“Tales of the killer weather event made their way into town histories, journals and court records long after it happened on January 19.. They told of the many people who froze to death while traveling along the highways. The wind blew down houses, barns and vast numbers of timber trees. Ships wrecked, cattle froze in their barns and old people died of hypothermia inside their homes. It was so cold pens wouldn’t write though they were right next to the fireplace”. – H/T New England Historical Society

I suspect it’s happened to all of us, particularly in the colder latitudes. You dress for the weather, (or think you do), later to find you got it wrong. Off you go to the office, to the store, and before you know it, it’s soaking wet. Or freezing cold. We’ve all been there, but what of an age before you had that nice warm car, to jump into?

In January 1810, several New England journalists recorded a temperature that dropped 100 degrees in 24 hours, from 67° Fahrenheit on Thursday the 18th, to -33° on Friday.

According to NASA, the average winter temperature at the North Pole, is -40°.

That was only the half of it. The weather forecasters of the day didn’t record wind chill but the howling gale that brought that cold with it, was a killer.

Henry David Thoreau’s mother remembered dishes frozen, as soon as they were washed. Reverend William Bentley wrote that people died, without going outside.

On the mild afternoon of January 18, 50-year-old Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Brooks of Woburn Massachusetts and his 45-year old cousin Benjamin, went into the forest to cut wood. The two were found frozen to death on Saturday.

HistoricIpswich.org writes of “people who froze to death while traveling along the highways. Houses, barns and vast numbers of timber trees were blown down or broken to pieces. Ships were wrecked, cattle froze in their barns and old people died of hypothermia in their homes. It was so cold pens wouldn’t write though they were right next to the fireplace“.

In Sanbornton New Hampshire, the wind tore the home of Jeremiah Ellsworth, to pieces. Ellsworth struggled into the maelstrom to the home of David Brown, seeking help. The howling wind literally tore the clothes off the backs of Ellsworth’s older children as Mrs. Ellsworth struggled to carry the baby, into the basement. Ellsworth made it to the neighbor’s house but, with his feet frozen, the man was unable to go on. Brown hooked up a horse and sleigh and drove back to the Ellsworth home. That’s when things went Seriously wrong. The sleigh was blown over not once, but twice. The second time it was torn apart, its contents, scattered. David Brown labored to carry the Ellsworth children the rest of the way. Mrs. Ellsworth was reduced to crawling. By the time she arrived at the Brown home she was unrecognizable. None of the three children survived.

On a happier note, Rebecca Ramsdell was a schoolgirl, in Henniker New Hampshire. James Bartlett was the teacher in those days, and made it a habit to award little medals, to children with exceptional attendance. Rebecca braved the cold that morning and walked a mile, to school. Bartlett gave her a medal, and she never forgot it. You can find a picture of Ms. Ramsdell at the Henniker Historical Society. She’s 100+ in that photo and she still had Mr. Bartlett’s medal.

H/T Henniker Historical Society

Locals spoke of the Cold Friday of 1810, for generations. Twenty years later, a New Hampshire court proceeding required a date. The answer wasn’t hard to remember. It had happened on Cold Friday.

January 11, 1693 Feeling Puny?

Such an event could happen tomorrow, next year or ten thousand years from now. No one knows. We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

In his 1897 short story The Open Boat, Stephen Crane writes of the puniness of humanity, when bared and exposed to the wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please. “If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? 

Deep in the ground beneath your feet, a rocky shell comprising an outer Crust and an inner Mantle forms a hard and rigid outer shell, closing off and containing the solid inner core of our planet. Between these hard inner and outer layers exists a solid core of material which remains viscous over geologic time, measuring approximately 1,802 miles thick and comprising some 84 percent of the volume, of planet Earth.

The air around us is a liquid, exerting a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. Scientists estimate that pressures within this outer core generate temperatures of 1,832° Fahrenheit near the boundary with the crust, to 6,692° Fahrenheit approaching the core boundary.

As a point of reference, the surface of the sun is about 10,340°, Fahrenheit.

That rocky shell closing us off from all that is actually quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces, (depending on how you define them), and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates.

Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. Roughly equal and opposite to these are the Subduction Zones, where one plate moves under another and down into the mantle.

The planet is literally “eating’ itself.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and one of twenty regions of Italy, lies on the convergent boundary of two such pieces of the planet’s outer shell, where the African plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate.  Over time, the forces built up along these subduction zones, are nothing short of Titanic.

Sicily is also home to the terrifying Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. On this day in 1693, those Seven Mad Gods got together and unleashed on the puniness of humanity, the wrath of the ages.

The first foretaste of what was about to happen began at 21:00 local time, January 9, 1693. The earthquake, centered on the east Sicilian coast and felt as far away as the south of Italy and the island nation of Malta, had an estimated magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale with a perceived intensity on the Mercali Intensity Scale of VIII – XI: Destructive to Very Disastrous.

Mercali describes a Category XI earthquake: “Few, if any, (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges damaged or destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipe lines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly”.

This thing was only stretching and yawning.  Just getting out of bed.

The main shock of January 11 lasted four minutes with an estimated magnitude of 7.4 and a very large area reaching X on the Mercali scale and XI, in the province of Syracuse.

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The soil beneath our feet, ordinarily so substantial and unmoving, behaves like a liquid at times like these in a process called soil liquefaction. Low density, sandy soils compress in response to applied loads while dense soils expand in volume or dilate. Saturated soils are like unto quicksand, as underground liquids are driven up to form miniature volcanoes called “sand boils, water spouting up from the ground in geysers, rising 30-feet and more.

Reflect on that for a moment, if you will. The soil. Behaving like a liquid.

The catastrophic eruption of 1669 was well within living memory and reports describe minor eruptions on this day as well.  As if even a small volcanic eruption could be called “minor”.

Several large fractures opened in the earth, one 1,600-feet long and nearly seven-feet wide.

Meanwhile the ocean withdrew from the coast as the Ionian Sea gathered itself, to strike. The initial withdrawal left the harbor dry at Augusta, damaging several Galleys owned by the Knights of Malta.   The tsunami when it came was eight meters in height (26-feet), inundating an area nearly a mile inland from the coastline.

The final death toll of as many as 60,000 is uncertain, unsurprising in light of the fact that whole regions, were blotted out. 63% of the entire population was wiped out in Catania, 51% in Ragusa. Syracuse, Noto, Augusta, Modica – all lost between one-out-of-five, and one-in-three.

Reconstruction in the wake of the catastrophe was so extensive, as to spawn a new and unique form of art and architecture, known as Sicilian Baroque.

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The Cathedral of Noto is one of the many buildings constructed in Sicilian Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693

Today, the colossal Mount Etna remains one of the most active volcanoes, on earth.  Sensors placed along the land and seaward flanks of the volcano reveal the alarming discovery that the volcano itself, is moving.  Mount Etna is sliding at a rate of an inch per year and sometimes more.  One eight-day period in 2008 showed a movement of two inches, raising concerns that Mount Etna may one day collapse into itself.

On May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, resulting in 57 deaths and inflation-adjusted property damage, of $3.3 Billion.  The US Geological Survey called the resulting collapse of the north face of the volcano “the largest debris avalanche on earth, in recorded history”.  Should such an event strike the Stratovolcano that is Mount Etna, the result would be felt from the Spanish coast to the shores of Israel, from North Africa to the French Riviera.

Given geologic time scales, such an event could happen tomorrow, next year, or ten thousand years from now.  No one knows.  We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

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Ruins of the Norman castle in Noto Antica

Featured image, top of page:  New life before the shattered ruins of the old city of Not (Noto Antica), destroyed on January 11, 1693.  The new city of Noto was built, eleven kilometers away

October 20, 1937 The Swarm

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states. It was a rolling tide, the size of California and Maine, put together.

In the decade following 1932, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder published a series of eight novels, a fictionalized autobiography based on the childhood experiences of a 19th century pioneer and settler family. Third in the series is the best known, Little House on the Prairie, the subject for a television series running from 1974 to ’83.

In her fourth book, Wilder tells a tale of grasshoppers, of a time when locusts wiped out a much-anticipated and badly needed wheat crop, laying so many eggs as to destroy all hope for the following year, as well.  On the Banks of Plum Creekpublished  this day in 1937, told the story of “Pa” having to walk three-hundred miles east to find work on farms, which had escaped the biblical plague.

There are something like 11,000 species of grasshoppers in the world, the familiar, plant munching insects of our summer fields.  They are vegetarian creatures with polyphagous feeding habits, meaning they’ll eat just about anything, given the need and the opportunity.

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Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, photographed in 1870s, Minnesota

Usually a solitary creature, only a few species will become locusts, the “gregarious” phase of the insect’s life cycle characterized by swarming, migration, and accompanied by explosive growth in population.

Such swarms have been reported since the time of the Pharaoh. The two years in Wilder’s story, 1874 – ’75, are among the worst swarms on record for the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus.  

M. Spretus finds its home in the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but outbreaks of the insect have caused farm damage as far away as Maine during the period 1743–’56, and in Vermont during the administration of President George Washington.

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition, vast herds of American bison stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. Historians estimate 30 to 60 million of the creatures, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring twelve-feet long. A minimum of sixty billion pounds of biomass, needing something to eat.

The western artist George Catlin estimated that, by 1841, some two to three million of the creatures had been slaughtered for their hides. Bison populations came under increasing pressure as natives acquired horses and guns, but the real slaughter began with the Indian wars and “hunting by rail”, when every dead buffalo was seen as a dead Indian.  By the late 1880s, only a few hundred individuals remained alive, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A mountain of bison skulls

With the bison gone and a new wave of vegetation, there arose a new and very different multitude, come to feed on it.

During the 19th century, farming expanded westward into the grasshopper’s favored habitat, triggering massive outbreaks in their numbers.  Locust populations exploded to varying degrees in 1828, ’38, ’46, and ’55, affecting areas throughout the West and upper mid-west. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–’57 and again during the last year of the Civil War.  Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and ’74.

Rocky_Mountain_Locust_oviposition

NPR reports in a 2020 segment about locusts in Africa, that such a swarm measuring one square kilometer, about a third of a square mile, can consume as much in a day, as would have fed 35,000 people.

Population blooms of two years are typical, as eggs laid in year one tend not to thrive as well as their parents.  At its height, farmers reported finding up to 150 egg cases per square inch, each containing 100 eggs or more.

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states.  It was a rolling tide, the size of California and Maine, put together.

The numbers are so far outside of human experience, they are hard to get your head around. For a little perspective, a million seconds is about twelve days. A Billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. A Trillion seconds ago, the oldest known clay object was fired to ceramic in the earliest oven.  It was 29,000, B.C.

“Albert’s Swarm”, the largest such assembly of organisms in recorded history, is estimated at 12½ Trillion individuals.

Exam29072013Locusts_large

It was a biological wildfire, a living blizzard that blotted out the sun, 12½ trillion insects each the size of a child’s finger, each driven to eat its own weight.  Every day.  All in, Albert’s Swarm is estimated to have weighed 27½ million tons.

As the continuous track of a bulldozer moves ever forward, the leading edge of the swarm would alight to rest and eat, only to pick up the rear, a few days later.  In this manner, the swarm would cover ten miles or so in a few weeks.

One farmer reported “a great white cloud, like a snowstorm, blocking out the sun like vapor“.  Even the sound was horrific, rising to a scream and rolling over the land like some evil tide, the whirring and rasping cacophony of billions of mandibles borne aloft to eat, almost literally, everything in sight. Native populations could and did, move.  For prairie settler and pioneer families, home was on the farm.

Check out what these things sound like. Video taken this year, in Ethiopia.

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes. Standing crops were the first to go and then the root vegetables: potatoes, carrots and turnips. They were devoured, right out of the ground. Throw a blanket over your garden to protect even that little bit, and they would eat the blanket. Fence posts, saddles, nothing was off limits.  These creatures would eat the wool, right off of the sheep.  At its worst, the ravenous horde was known to eat the clothes, right off of people’s backs.

Trains were literally stopped in their tracks on uphill stretches of rail, unable to gain traction for the grease of millions of tiny bodies, ground beneath their wheels.

rocky-mountain-locust-1

Farmers used gunpowder, fire and water, anything they could think of, to destroy what could only be seen as a plague of biblical proportion. They smeared them with “hopperdozers”, a plow-like device pulled behind horses, designed to knock jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, or even sucking them into vacuum cleaner-like contraptions.

It was like trying to turn the tide, with a shot glass.  

Missouri entomologist Charles Valentine Riley came up with a recipe to eat the damned things, seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. Some bought the recipe, but many felt they “would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures”.

In 1877, a Nebraska law required everyone between the ages of 16 and 60 to work at least two days eliminating locusts, or face a $10 fine. Missouri and other Great Plains states offered bounties: $1 a bushel for locusts gathered in March, 50¢ in April, 25¢ in May, and 10¢ in June.

map-from-the-locust-plague

And then the locust went away, and no one is entirely certain, why.  It is theorized that plowing, irrigation and harrowing destroyed up to 150 egg cases per square inch, in the years between swarms. Great Plains settlers, particularly those alongside the Mississippi river, appear to have disrupted the natural life cycle.  Winter crops, particularly wheat, enabled farmers to “beat them to the punch”, putting away stockpiles of food before the pestilence reached the swarming phase.

Today, the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct.  Several grasshopper species swarm as locusts on every continent in the world, save for North America and Antarctica.   The last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain Locust was seen in Canada, in 1902.

November 26, 1703 Into the Maelstrom

It’s hard to count the cost of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you, is gone.  Estimates of fatalities range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed.

The storm came in from the southwest on Wednesday evening, November 24, and stayed until December 2. On Friday the 26th, barometers read as low as 950 millibars in some areas, a reading so low as not to have been seen in living memory. Before it was over, the southern part of Great Britain had suffered one of the most destructive storms, in history.

In a time before meteorological science, such an event was understood to be the wrath of God.  And what a wrathful God, he was.  Any storm worthy of the name “Hurricane”- any storm, we’re not talking Katrina or Andrew here – expends the energy equivalent to 200 times the electrical generating capacity, of the entire planet.  We’re talking about 10,000 Hiroshimas here, usually spread out over time and place.  Not this one.  This one was concentrated, compacted into the heavily populated south of England, a place where the gray and feeble first light of dawn broke across the land, and “nobody could believe the hundredth part they saw“.

A155403.jpgBeginning in early November, a series of gales drove hundreds of ships up the Thames estuary, is search of shelter.  The “Perfect Hurricane” of 1703 arrived on November 24 (Old Style) and remained until December 2 with the worst of the storm on November 26-27.

Queen Anne sought shelter in the cellars of St. James’ Palace, while the lead roof blew off of Westminster Abbey.  More than 2,000 chimneys were toppled to the ground in London alone as were another 17,000, trees. In the Thames, 700 vessels of all sizes piled up like children’s toys.  Ship’s officers struggled to record an event, entirely outside of living memory.

“It was so severe, none of these poor captains had ever experienced it before, so they didn’t have any yardsticks to base the description on,” says Wheeler, who studied Royal Navy logbooks at length. “One gave up and just wrote ‘a most violent storm’ and left it at that, for sheer want of anything more he could say.”

At the Cathedral City at Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was asleep with his wife next to him, when a toppling chimney killed them both in their bed.

A third of British Naval power was destroyed during this storm, the entire Channel squadron, gone.  Ships were driven as much as 15 miles inland, more than 1,500 sailors drowned.  Many vessels simply disappeared. Others washed up on the faraway shores of Denmark, and Norway.

Synoptic-summary-of-The-Great-Storm-of-December-1703-in-England-after-Lamb-and.pngThe most miraculous tale of survival was that of Thomas Atkins, a sailor aboard the HMS Mary. As Mary broke apart, Atkins watched as Rear Admiral Beaumont climbed aboard a piece of her quarter deck, only to be washed away.  Atkins himself was lifted high on a wave and deposited on the decks of another ship, the HMS Stirling Castle.  He was soon in the water again as Stirling Castle broke up and sank, only to thrown by yet another wave, this time landing in a small boat. Atkins alone survived the maelstrom, of the 269 men aboard HMS Mary.

Hundreds found themselves stranded on Goodwin Sands, a ten mile long sand bar, six miles off the coast of Kent. In a race against the incoming tide, a man named Thomas Powell organized the rescue of some 200.  More could have been saved, had the good citizens onshore stopped looting shipwrecks long enough to lend a hand.

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An engraving of the age depicts the disaster, on Goodwin Sands.

With “Robinson Crusoe” still sixteen years in the future, the famous author Daniel Defoe was at this time, but a minor poet and pamphleteer.  The writer was freshly out of prison in 1703, having served a sentence for criticizing the religious predilections, of High Church Anglicans. Hearing the collapse of brick chimneys, the Defoes and their six children sought refuge in their gardens but were soon driven inside, to “trust the will of Providence”. “Whatever the danger was within doors”, he said, “”twas worse without; the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within.”

The 75,000 words which followed are recognized by many as the first work of modern journalism, forming Daniel Defoe’s first book length work, “The Storm”.

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English engineer Henry Winstanley constructed the first Eddystone Lighthouse. He died with his creation in 1703, caught out while making repairs, by the cataclysm of 1703

Storms of great severity are not unheard of in southern England. In 1362, part of the Norwich Cathedral spire was blown down.  Severe gales were recorded in 1897, 1908 and 1943. The gales of 1953 and 1987 left more damage than any storm of the last century. At the time, the storm of 1703 was seen as the Wrath of God, visited upon Great Britain for the “crying sins of this nation”. The storm would remain the subject of sermons for the next 150 years.

It’s hard to count the cost of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you, is gone.  Estimates of fatalities range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed. The Reaper’s true account, is impossible to know.

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March 29, 1848 When Niagara Falls Ran Dry

Only once in recorded history did Niagara Falls run dry.  On this day in 1848, roughly 212,000 cubic feet per second dried, to a trickle.

As Athens and Sparta vied for control of the Peloponnese, the earliest tribes settled in the Niagara valley of modern-day Ontario and western New York.  These aboriginal settlers were the Onguiaahra, a farming people growing corn, beans and squash in the rich soil of the Niagara escarpment, hunting deer and elk and fishing the tributary waterways of the Niagara valley.

They were 12,000 in number when French explorer Samuel de Champlain came to the region in 1615.  French explorers called them “Neutrals”, the peace makers between the perpetually warring tribes of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk Nations to the south, and the Huron to the north.  Vying for control of the rich French fur trade, peoples of this “Iroquois Confederacy” systematically destroyed the villages of the neutrals, killing their people or driving them east, toward Albany.  The Onguiaahra ceased to exist as a people by 1653 but their name lives on, in a word translating as “Thunder of Waters”.

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Niagara Falls are three in number, 3,160 tons of water cascading over the precipice every second, hitting the bottom at American and Bridal Veil Falls with 280 tons of force, and an astonishing 2,509 striking the Canadian side, at the famous Horseshoe Falls.

Pictures have been around since the age of photography, purporting to show Niagara Falls “frozen solid”.  That’s not so unusual.  The Washington Post reports:

“Niagara Falls gets cold every year. The average temperature in Niagara Falls in January is between 16 and 32 degrees. Naturally, it being that cold, ice floes and giant icicles form on the falls, and in the Niagara River above and below the falls, every year. The ice at the base of the falls, called the ice bridge, sometimes gets so thick that people used to build concession stands and walk to Canada on it. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. It is not, to put it bluntly, big polar vortex news”.

Niagara “Frozen” in 1906, 1902 and 1936.  Hat Tip Snopes.com

Despite appearances, water flows in abundance under those bridges of ice.  Only once in recorded history did Niagara Falls run dry.  On this day in 1848, roughly 212,000 cubic feet per second dried, to a trickle.  Not dried, really, nor did it freeze.  Strong southwest winds had driven massive amounts of ice to the head of Niagara River, effectively putting a cork in the bottle.

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Fish flopped in the dry riverbed as, upstream, factories ground to a halt.  Souvenir hunters and daredevils walked out on the dry river bed.  Some even drove buggies.   One unit of the United States Army cavalry paraded back and forth, across the river.  Treasure hunters found artifacts from the War of 1812:  muskets, bayonets, even tomahawks.  At the base of the Falls, Maid of the Mist owners took the opportunity to dynamite rocks, which had endangered their boat.

That much water is not to be denied.  The ice dam broke on March 31 and, by that evening, the flow was back to normal.

Lifelong “Stooges” fans will appreciate this classic comedy bit, “Niagara Falls”

The Falls “dried up” once more in 1961 but, this time, on purpose.  Over three days and 1,264 truckloads of fill, the US Army Corps of Engineers built a cofferdam that June, diverting water to the Canadian side.  There was concern that rock falls were going to cause erosion, “shutting down” the Falls.  On inspection, engineers determined that removing the rocks would accelerate erosion.  The idea was abandoned by November and the cofferdam, blown up.  To this day, the waters of Niagara flow unvexed, to the sea.

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A Trivial Matter
In 1901, Schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls, in a barrel.  Sixteen others have followed, at least on purpose.  Five of them died, including the guy who went over in a kayak, and the one on the jet ski.  On Saturday, July 9, 1960, seven-year-old Roger Woodward was accidentally swept over Horsehoe Falls and miraculously survived the 162-foot plunge, wearing only a bathing suit and a life jacket. Sadly, James Honeycutt was killed, attempting his rescue.  90% of fish who go over the Falls, live to tell the tale.