In the midst of our miserable weather, and dire financial troubles the series of ‘unfortunate’, or at least most unusual, events continued last year. Stringing them all together, as Dr Kieran Hickey does in his interesting book* reminds us that little old Ireland, blessed and loved by the saints, a ‘nation cradled in the arms of St Patrick’ (as I was taught in national school ), is, alas, not excluded from strange geophysical events such as extreme weather conditions, including volcanoes and earthquakes, as we may have once believed. Although it was extremely rare for all these events to happen in the same year, I am sorry to say that having spoken to Dr Hickey this week, we’d better batten down the hatches, and prepare for a worse walloping to come. Just over 200 years ago the weather gave Mary Shelley monstrous dreams...but more of that in a moment.
I think I must have been too preoccupied by the our lovely country sinking in the quagmire of incessant rain, floods and financial gloom to notice that on Wednesday February 3 a meteorite, described by many as a strange fireball ‘very bright green with an orange tail’ streaked across the sky over counties Kerry, Cork, Limerick, Galway, the midlands, Donegal, Derry, and Tyrone. It probably fell into a river or bog in County Armagh or Lough Neagh. It has never been found. Dr Hickey saw it as he left his office at NUIG on his way to his car. At first he thought it was a firework, but as it continued its fiery journey northwards, he knew it was a meteorite. How big it was is impossible to say. It could have been a big as a house. But as it entered to earth’s atmosphere, it disintegrated rapidly as it travelled from south to north. In Roman history meteorites have presaged grim tidings for us poor mortals on earth.
And it did in county Clare on May 6. Hotel owner Michael Vaughan heard a noise like ‘a sonic boom’. Others thought it was an explosion and phoned the Gardai. Others noticed cups and plates shaking. It was in fact a small earthquake which reached 2.7 on the Richter Scale. This was mercifully small by world standards, and surprisingly not that usual. Ireland gets a shaking from earthquakes from time to time. Dublin got a 5.5 rattling in 1984. Last May the epicentre of the earthquake was near Lisdonvarna, but it was felt in many parts of the county, including Liscannor, Lahinch, and Doolin.
Even stranger still was the eruption of that unpronounceable volcano in Iceland. Normally Iceland, tottering as it does upon layer upon layer of lava and volcanic ash, accumulated over the last 20 million years or so, is volcano friendly. They happen pretty well all the time, and Icelanders and the rest of Europe just shrug our shoulders and say, so what? But earlier this year it was extremely unusual for massive ash plumes to fall on parts of Ireland, and more significantly creating a danger for northwest Europe’s 28,000 flights a day. Air traffic in and out of Ireland was cancelled for several days or weeks at a time. It was ruinous for many airlines; but even if it reinforced our feeling of isolation from mainland Europe, it was at least a windfall for our sea- ferries. Dr Hickey tells us, however, that we were lucky to escape so lightly. These volcanic eruptions have been deadly in the past. In 1783 during the Laki fissure eruption, poisonous fogs and pollution affected Europe at ground level. It is estimated that two million people died, either directly due to gasses, or indirectly due to famine associated with crop failures.
The Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted in 1815, causing such a global downturn in climate that 1816 was known as ‘The year with no summer.’ Major food crises across the world caused millions of deaths. Perhaps we were lucky that only air travel was affected.
Strangely volcanos have inspired interesting works of art. The Tambora prompted Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, such was the darkness and strangeness of the weather, particularly that summer. The world was locked in a long, cold volcanic winter. Mary, 18 years old at the time, with her lover (later her husband ), Percy Bysshe Shelly, was visiting Lord Byron at his villa by Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. Sitting around the log fire one afternoon, Byron suggested they have a competition to see who could write the scariest ghost story. The young Mary put their hearts crossways with her story about a student who injects life, through an electric current, into a shape made up of body parts.**
Similarly, the Krakatoa eruption in 1883, an island in the Indonesian archipelago, killed at least 40,000 people, and created a noise heard more than 3,000 miles away. In northern Europe, it caused remarkable blood red, and other bizarre coloured, sunsets. They formed the background to Edvard Munch’s disturbing The Scream, painted in 1891.
Can Ireland take any more punishment? Yes we have no choice. We know that our financial situation is getting worse by the day, but unfortunately so are threats from our natural environment. Climate change is meant to bring milder winters, and warmer, if wetter, summers. Yet last year was one of our coldest years on record, and the wettest. Have the global warming prophets got it wrong? Dr Hickey says we are still on target for global warming, and it’s getting worse. Globally 2010 will probably be the warmest year on record, and Ireland will get better summers as the century moves along. The real problem has been the 48 hour heavy rainfall, 75 - 125mm in 2010, causing flooding and major problems for householders, and serious problems for those in flood plains who seek to insure their homes.
But as we go towards 2100 our biggest threat is the rise and rise of the sea levels. In the last century sea levels have risen 13 to 15 centimetres, and that was with no ice melt. The projection is that by the end of this century sea levels will have risen by 44 centimetres. But in the past three years, the speed with which Greenland’s ice is melting has accelerated significantly. Weather scientists have now been told to revise those figure upwards by one or two metres.
What does that mean for Galway? Dr Hickey says that unchecked the sea will come up Shop Street. There is little to be done for rural areas, he says, which are sinking anyway.“ Coastal erosion is happening all the time. The rise in sea levels is insidious. It’s sneaky. It’s constantly eating away at our coastline. The real scary stuff, however, is that not only is ice-melt in Greenland happening at a faster rate that was predicted, but now there is evidence that the Antarctic is melting at an even more rapid pace. We don’t know yet the impact of that, only it is not looking good.” Dr Hickey believes that, once again, Europe will come to the rescue, and at enormous cost, will devise some form of coastal protection, especially for cities.
It’s the stuff of horror stories.
*Deluge - Ireland’s weather disasters 2009-2010 by Kieran Hickey, published by Four Courts Press Ltd, now on sale at €14.95
** Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was published the following year, in 1818. Despite a slamming by the critics, it was an immediate popular success. It has never been out of print. It became widely known through melodramatic theatrical adaptations, and is still a popular theme in film today. The young author, having impressed the two greatest poets of their day, described that summer as “When I first stepped out from childhood into life.”