Fortunately our civilization has advanced enough so that we experienced minimum electrical ‘outages’, despite heavy snow, icicles and ice on power lines. There were, however, multiple power ‘surges’ and computers countrywide were frozen in mid surge. Mac and pc-owners and related computer businesses are still counting the cost. Curry’s have been doing a roaring trade in replacement laptops!
It seems to have hit a lot of young ones harder than they might have thought: not that closing schools and cancelling bus and train services are a hazard; more time to make snowmen, play and enjoy winter sports, you might think. Lack of reliable public transportation, however – counting on any public services, in fact – four weeks without refuse collection borders on neglect, were commuters’ and householders’ concerns. Abandonment, remoteness and surprise at being cut off suddenly are what hit the teens hardest, I think because they are unaccustomed to having their social life curtailed by ‘weather’ and few had experienced conditions such as these in their young lives.
Some of us older oldies remember the winter of 1981/2 with shivering empathy; electrical failure, power cuts, snow drifts higher than houses; evacuating and rescuing neighbours, birds frozen overnight in trees. But that was back in the Thatcherite era, before the internet, when we didn’t EXPECT everything to run on time, snow ploughs to get through, petrol in cars not to freeze.
Human culture has changed in nearly 30 years: Even in the modern backwater of Aberdeenshire, the County of no motorways, the self-styled Oil Capital of Europe.For those unfamiliar with our ways, this corner of Scotland – the Northeast triangle between Rivers Don and Dee and the balmy Moray Firth – has always flourished, but more than that, it looks after its own. Rather, I suppose, like Geordies idolizing their working-class heroes that went ‘down the pits’ or Scousers joking ‘don’t bomb Iraq; nuke Manchester’. Parochial in the extreme.
Unlike some other lesser-urban metropolises, however, (Dundee, Perth, Stranraer), Aberdeen has always pulled through its hardest times: Dundee used to be known (an age ago, when the world was young) for its Jute, Jam and Journalism. Now it is home to none of these; but it has Robert Scott’s ‘Discovery‘, the Tay Bridge and it’s on the way to St. Andrews, which every golfer in the world has heard of; i.e. it participates peripherally in tourism, but some of its poorer districts are in appalling shape.
Perth floods every year and millions of national money poured in to rescue low-level housing has been a nightmare. Stranraer we won’t go into. It’s no longer on the way to anywhere.
Then there’s Aberdeen.
Perched on the westernmost limb of the North Sea’s mild Gulf Stream current, its dry climate (usually, rain from the west is captured by the Grampian mountains before it reaches the plain) and its remarkable latitude (57ºN2ºW ), akin to central Alaska, give it a climatic anomaly. Its farming hinterland was rich in Neolithic times and has grown richer.
A century and a half ago the city was hub to a thriving fishing industry; its harbours built, housed and skippered trawlers, tall clipper ships, deep sea schooners and whaling vessels. Thermopylae and Elissa were built here. Names like Alexander Hall & Sons, John Lewis and Sons, the Devanha Fishing Company sprang from everyone’s lips. As a merchant marine capital it was second only to Glasgow in Scotland and Liverpool south of the border.
Aberdeen, however, was never one to have only one egg in one basket: it was also the sole exporter of granite to needy growing urban centres: London streets were indeed paved with (Aberdeen granite) gold. Craigenlow quarry at Dunecht supplied the English capital with tons of its ‘cassies’ or granite sets – hand-cut granite blocks the size of a gingerbread loaf – to meet the demands of a city experiencing growing Victorian traffic problems. If they had but known…
At the height of Georgian expansion, Aberdeen city burghers were so wealthy, their coffers overflowing from the ocean tea trade, the Baltic route, their fishing ports supplying Europe’s tables (nowadays it’s the other way around), their granite exported the world over; that they chose to beautify: and the mile-long boulevard known as Union Street was built in 1801-05. This grandiose gesture – a feat of engineering which levelled St. Catherine’s Hill and carried the extra-wide thoroughfare across arches built over the previous lower Denburn and ancient market Green – almost bankcrupted the burghers, but brought the city fame to add to its already growing fortune.As early as the mid-18th century, Aberdeenshire’s famous Baltic merchants continued to bring their fortunes back home; so the county continually thrived, regardless of the ups and downs of a world economy. Robert Gordon (1688-1731), founder of the Robert Gordon Hospital, now RGU, was famous for lending money made in the Danzig trade to Aberdeen businessmen who needed large working capital at even larger rates of interest. ‘Danzig Willie’ Forbes ploughed his fortune from the Baltic trade into the building of exquisite Donside château Craigievar between 1610-1625 on the family estate of Corse, when he was already landowner of Menie estate on the Belhelvie coast north of Aberdeen. John Ramsay, an Aberdeen merchant in 1758 built his palladian mansion at Straloch. Others followed suit. The county is today littered with stately Renaissance piles and Georgian mansions more appropriate to the valley of the Loire, the home counties or the wilds of Gloucestershire.
Within this mix stir a couple of ancient universities – one founded in 1495, the other in 1593, both fostered and supported through the centuries by Aberdonian merchant success.
The world joke about the Aberdonian who watches his pennies is not entirely untrue. And the tradition goes back farther than the fifteenth century.Even more relevant to the characterization, perhaps, is the fact that Aberdeen Harbour (presently run by the independent entity Aberdeen Harbour Board) is in fact the oldest running business enterprise in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, having been founded by charter signed by King David I in 1136. The business head of the kingdom resides on the edge of the North Sea.
But the bell tolled. The fishing industry worldwide killed its own small fry: when container ships and tankers beheaded sailing vessels, similarly Icelandic and Norwegian refrigerated freighters signalled the death knell for trawlers and owner-operated fishing boats; and Aberdeen’s shipbuilding days were over.
In the early 1970s, Britain was experiencing the three-day-week, unemployment stats for the country were the highest then known, and even the granite industry declined. Its clients metamorphosed from those who appreciated polished stone to faceless ‘councils’ and ‘road departments’ which required the precious quartz and gneiss resource to be ground into dust-like fragments which could be mixed with tar and spread in increasing quantities on the nation’s arteries.
It looked as if Aberdeen, like every other Scots city, might founder on the rocks of history.Then, lo and behold, along came oil. Bubbling up from below the North Sea in 1971, another industry was born. And the ‘silver city with the golden sands’ was perched on the shoreline, ready to receive it.
It is said that because of its very geographic isolation the county learned to take care of itself. And its humour has a lot to do with its character.
Now that there is talk of worldwide recession and dwindling of the oil resource, the current Aberdonian humorous response is ‘oil goes out, Donald Trump comes in’. This refers to the New York entrepreneur’s £1 billion golf course resort where sand dune reinforcing work has just begun on the very landholdings of Menie once owned by Danzig Willie. Aberdeenshire is not averse to turning full circle. It has so far weathered many storms through centuries of change.
So how did we fare in this last Great Storm? How did the planet fare?
Greece had 100ºF temperatures at Christmas and Abu Dhabi and Dubai had HAIL the day before the launch of the 2,717-feet Burj Khalifa tower in the first week of January.
Scotland and Aberdeenshire in particular were at the time experiencing the grip of an Arctic winter, with traffic on all roads down to minimum and gritting and snow-ploughing said by Council spokesmen to be ‘impossible’. While they reported worries that supplies of salt from the Cheshire salt mine might be exhausted, citrus orchards throughout the state of Florida were hit by snow and frost lingered long enough to decimate their total citrus crop for 2010.
At the same time Mount Nyamulagira in a sparsely populated area of the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted, threatening an enclave of rare chimpanzees.
Eureka and Haiti had 6.5 and 7.2 Richter earthquakes respectively, while inland Northern California and Southern Oregon, usually inundated with snow, received not one drop. States of emergency were declared for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco and Siskiyou counties and as the rainstorm headed east, floods swamped the Arizona desert, threatening homes and killing migrant birds. Las Vegas, Nevada had more rain in two days than for the total year of 2009 (1.69 inches). Alligators in the Everglades froze to death.
France’s Mistral blew early this year, wreaking havoc and damage to vines and vineyards in southern départements of Lyon and Provence; the Riviera harbours of St Tropez and Marseille suffered damage to private yachts.
Since the snowmelt arrived in Scotland in mid January, it is superfluous to mention that the resulting floods have routed gutters and drains in cities and country towns and overflowed ditches in outlying country areas. Perth (again) and Inverurie, Huntly and Kintore were unable to cope with the deluge. These levels of precipitation bring Aberdeen’s rainfall statistics for the year 2009 to mid January 2010 to 101.23 inches, for a county normally experiencing 33.6 inches per annum.
The Earth doesn’t like what we’ve been doing to her in the last thirty years. She’s beginning to fight back.
I am being a little self-driven here, but the temperatures in Northern Scotland recently have been a little more akin to Estonia and the temps in Estonia rather more like Scotland. Estonia had a rapid freeze over Christmas, but by Boxing Day it was blazing sunshine and thawing. We in the northern isles, on the other hand, had a solstitial temperature of -16ºC (approx. 25ºF) and more snow descended. One day of sunny plus degrees and then a refreeze. It’s down to minus something awful again tonight.
It all has something to do with that great author Arthur C Clarke who first predicted a new civilization with his 2001: A Space Odyssey and then followed it with the lesser-known sequel 2010: Odyssey Two.
Or, it could just be that dreaded winter high pressure over Iceland.
All summer long we prayed, begged, cajoled the elementals in Mother Earth’s atmospheric arsenal into giving us a high pressure over Iceland. These little devas may have been listening but they weren’t about to hand one over. A high pressure over Reykyavik in July and August just about guarantees the eastern and northern portions of the Scots peninsula temperatures like you would not believe!
We did have one tiny blip; I do remember. It came and hovered over this long-forgotten plain for two weeks around the time of Wimbledon. I remember this because when it’s Wimbledon, they are serving strawberries to the punters in the interval while the rest of us are craving the taste, the whiff of that red juice; our gardens are trying their best to ripen the much sought-after fruit, and it usually comes two weeks later after everybody has forgotten who won.
Not this year.
When Wimbledon was being served strawberries, the huge luscious berries in my strawberry bed were at their ripest. They were more delicious than any I can remember. So, some of us poor misguided souls thought the summer of 2009 was going to be another nine on the global-warming scale of one to ten.
It was short-lived.
I am not ungrateful. Those berries tasted so delicious, I can sense the tingle in my mouth even now. But two weeks after Wimbledon, two weeks into the height of strawberry harvest, we in Scotland were plunged into rain. And it rained from the end of July until the end of November and then the snow came. I think you might call that a little unfair of Santa’s little helpers in the department of the stratosphere over Iceland.
I should explain.The jet stream, just like the Gulf Stream, whooshes perennially by these shores. It arrives from the west and comes in a kind of wavy motion, following the temperature boundaries where, for example, cold from the polar Arctic region meets warmer air masses from the tropics. Jet streams are caused by a combination of atmospheric heating – solar radiation – and the earth’s rotation on its axis. The main commercial relevance of the jet stream, naturally, is in air travel, as flight time can be dramatically affected by either flying with or against the jet stream.
Meteorologists use the location of the jet stream as an aid in weather forecasting. But, as we know, weather is no longer predicted as you and I do it, looking at the sky and feeling the wind change; cloud-watching; most weather forecasting nowadays is predicted by computer with numbers on charts.
But there is something comforting about looking at a temperature gauge or a barograph or barometer and seeing the wavy line change from low to high. If the movement is rapid, excitement is tangible: good weather is on its way.
This is where the high pressure comes in. High pressure attracts warm and warm brings clearing skies and clearing skies make clouds disappear, dissolve, evaporate and we get that yellow glowing thing in the sky called the solar orb, sunshine. I know, I sound as if I haven’t seen it since July. It is almost true.
A high rotates as a cyclone with isobars travelling in a clockwise direction; northerly air stream (wind from the north) heralds the end of a low pressure and the start of a high; ; So when a high pressure sits overhead, in the cyclonic centre it is a still, clear day. High pressures centered over Iceland tend to sit; generate another friendly high and sit again. So the northern isles of Great Britain benefit by osmosis. By contrast, if the high pressure of June, July and August lingers (as it did throughout the summer of 2009) over the Bay of Biscay, then the edge of the high is too far away from our northern shores and all we get is the edge spin, suggested above: the following edge of a counterclockwise low drags after it a high; and conversely the following edge of a high brings an anticyclone low. Bay of Biscay high equals northern Scotland low, low low. That translates as cloud: rain, rain, and more rain.
July through November the lows bred more lows and hung over us like a meteorological hangover.Now, rather late on the scene, the high pressure has arrived; and because it is winter, those clear open skies are so clear and open we are receiving Arctic conditions daily. No cloud to keep the temperature from falling. Below zero freezing conditions more usual in eastern Europe at this time of year. Snow-clad landscape; white mountain ranges sparkling in clear air fifty miles distant.
At times like this our forebears would gather round the fire after a splendid seasonal feast and tell stories. Nowadays, of course, there is tele: and after New Year, if the snow is still with us (forecast is for it to continue) there will be more TV: for our American cousins and for those with satellite reception it will be Rose Bowl season: days on end of watching the sport of bling: football. I don’t begrudge the fans: we all need something to exercise the mind when the body is hibernating and adjusting to the rigours of winter.
We as a society have become near-immune to what is called in meteorological circles ‘severe weather’. But let’s think about that for a moment.
We have been subject lately to some pretty severe space weather. I heard (but it’s only a rumour) that another solar surge is on its way. We know that during the current solar minimum sunspots are infrequent, but, like the unexpected flare which took us by surprise on July 7th this year, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can play havoc with our geomagnetic systems. Now that we are (practically) all on the same grid (electrical, telecommunications, satellite, computer, transport, GPS navigation), power-driven systems are extremely susceptible to solar storms. It’s not just snow freezing the light cables and clogging the plumbing: a mass power failure would not be a good thing while temperatures are as low as they are at present. We might suddenly come to the scary realization that the wall is very thin between us who are dependent on our winter heating systems for warmth and the homeless man lying wrapped in newspaper under the freeway.
Let’s look, just for example, at the strongest geomagnetic storm on record: the Carrington Event of September 2nd, 1859.This CME is named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the solar flare with unaided eye while projecting an image of the sun on a screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the solar explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocked technicians and set fire to their telegraph papers. Aurora Borealis, (Northern Lights) spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.
God forbid we should have another Carrington Event. We are ill-equipped as it is. In Northern Scotland, where there is no such thing as a motorway, autostrada or freeway, it takes council services all their time to grit icy roads to fragile outlying communities. People’s boilers and gas central heating break down and service technicians can’t reach remote districts because roads are impassable. This is what our society now expects: instantly accessible power; we are failure- and breakdown-intolerant. We do not expect the unexpected and yet the signs around us all point to Mother Nature giving us a shakedown.
I consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones: in that I have a winter store of homegrown vegetables, chickens that lay when it’s not too bitter, and an accessible supply of wood and (dare I say it, that politically-incorrect fuel): coal. If we get a severe storm warning, either earth weather or space weather, I shall, with angelic help, get by. I am not so sure about the flimsy-skirted, T-shirted commuter driving home in her mini without her winter boots, a hat or gloves, who gets caught out in the snowstorm or marooned in a drift.
If the devas are showing us signs of natural occurrences as we enter that long-heralded epoch beginning in twenty-ten, to keep us on our toes, may I suggest we prepare ourselves for what might be a year to remember.