Saturday 31 December 2016

How humans have tried to control storms

In Lithuania in the olden days, they would drink beer, dance round bonfires, or sacrifice animals. In other Slav countries, maidens would be danced to death. In the British Isles, we burned humans and animals alive inside a great wickerwork idol (remember the cult horror film, The Wicker Man?), while the Aztecs sacrificed children. All these things were done to try to control the tempests which humanity has learned the hard way, can unleash immense destruction without warning.

It must all have sounded so primitive to those in more modern times, who tried to enlist science. So in Central Europe in the late nineteenth century, they fired mortars in vineyards and orchards to stop hailstorms, believing the shock waves in the atmosphere would stop the stones forming. Great success was claimed, but scientific experiments found the method useless.

In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union went for a more ambitious approach, trying to protect the cotton fields of Uzbekistan and other places from hailstorms by firing into the clouds rockets and artillery shells carrying silver or lead iodide crystals. The idea was to provide lots of nuclei around which stones could form, making them more numerous but smaller, and less able to do damage.

The Russians claimed that between 1968 and 1984 they achieved 80 per cent success, but American tests were unable to reproduce the results. 

For the full story of humanity’s attempts to control storms see my new book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books). 

Friday 30 December 2016

Storms in films

‘It was a hurricane to blast you from the orchestra pit to the first mezzanine,’ said one critic of the spectacular 15 minute storm sequence conjured up by the great John Ford in his 1937 film, The Hurricane. The story of how an unfeeling French colonial regime persecuted a free-spirited native man, it won the Oscar for best sound.

But Ford’s storm sequence was a mere taster for the genre where storms would really come into their own – the disaster movie. The special effects teams for Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow had to conjure up hailstones like grapefruit to fell people in Tokyo, a snowstorm in Delhi, tornados to fling cars around in LA, a rainstorm that floods New York City, and so on.

My new book, Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion) tells the story of the role played by storms in the movies, as well as examining their place in art, literature, religion and history.

In films, they are often a device for transporting the characters from a normal life to a new, often threatening world. So, in The Wizard of Oz, it is a tornado that whirls Judy Garland’s character up from her Kansas home into the company of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and a wicked witch.

More recently, in Life of Pi, the hero starts a bit less conventionally – sailing from India to Canada with a zoo-full of animals, but things get really extraordinary when a storm sinks the ship and he finds himself in a lifeboat with only a hungry tiger for company.

Another plot function is confinement. In John Huston’s classic thriller Key Largo, a hurricane keeps an increasingly edgy gangster, played by Edward G. Robinson, cooped up in a small hotel with his gang, his alcoholic girlfriend, and the hero, Humphrey Bogart. The tension builds relentlessly until Robinson gets his comeuppance.

The Day After Tomorrow tried to hammer home an environmental message in a way some found crass, but just because a film is packed with special effects does not mean it cannot tell an affecting human story.

In The Perfect Storm, a fishing boat perishes in a long and genuinely scary tempest sequence, but the characters of the captain (played by George Clooney) and his crew are well drawn, and there is an affecting ending when another skipper says the men who died lie in a vast unmarked grave, with no headstones and nowhere to lay flowers, and that their loved ones can visit them only in their hearts and their dreams.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Death of a remarkable survivor

Vesna Vulović, aged 66, died in her Belgrade apartment over Christmas. Nearly 45 years earlier she had fallen 33,000 feet from a Yugoslav Airlines DC-9 that blew up over the Czech Republic en route from Stockholm to Belgrade.

Vulović, a flight attendant, was the only survivor among the 28 people on board. She was trapped in the tail as the aircraft plummeted to a mountainous area, and it is thought that pine trees and the snow softened the impact.

The Serbian woman was rescued by a woodsman who heard her screams. She was rushed to hospital after suffering a fractured skull, two crushed vertebrae and a broken pelvis, ribs and legs, but eventually made an almost complete recovery. Vulović’s fall would feature in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest anyone had ever survived without a parachute.

For a long time it was suspected the DC-9 had been brought down by a bomb on board, but in recent years a new theory emerged that it had been shot down by mistake by the then Czechoslovak air force.

(For other stories of remarkable escapes, see my posts of 4 July 2009, 16 January 2010, and 22 March 2011.)

Thursday 15 December 2016

Brexitwatch - is the 'will of the people' sacrosanct?

These days nobody much bothers claiming we will derive any advantage from leaving the EU. Instead Theresa May and the Brexiters say we have to do it because it is what ‘the people’ voted for. And anyone who argues against this is an ‘enemy of the people.’ So is the ‘will of the people’ the equivalent of a decree from an absolute monarch, a dictator or an infallible Pope?

We know there is no legal requirement for the referendum result to be implemented, because Parliament voted for a non-binding referendum, and, as the Brexiters kept arguing during the campaign, Parliament is sovereign. So is there a moral responsibility to impose the result?

There are, of course, many reasons for saying the result has no legitimacy. That it was won by a systematic campaign of lies and deception, that the number who voted for Brexit was far short of a majority of the electorate, etc. etc. But, for the purpose of this argument, let us leave them aside.

Suppose that tomorrow morning, Theresa May woke up and decided the warnings of virtually every reputable economist and most other authorities were correct after all. Brexit was going to do very serious damage to our country. Would she still be obliged to impose it? No matter how serious the damage?

Because if the answer is ‘no’, it means the ‘will of the people’ is not sacrosanct. And Theresa May is asking the wrong question. It should not be ‘how do we implement the “will of the people”’, but what do we do to serve their best interests. And that is something MPs shoud be examining now and urgently, long before Article 50 is triggered.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Storms in art

The only seascape painted by the great Rembrandt is Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633). It shows Christ being calmness itself while his disciples panic, and one throws up over the side. Or perhaps that should be ‘showed’ as the painting was stolen from Boston in 1990 and has not been seen since.

At about the time Rembrandt was at work, landscape painting was emerging for the first time as a respected genre, The great French master Nicolas Poussin quickly latched on to the spectacle provided by a storm in his Landscape During a Thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651) with its trees bending in the fierce wind and its sky riven by lightning.

Poussin took a story from ancient Babylon, but during the seventeenth century, Dutch painters such as Ludolf Bakhuizen began to create naturalistic contemporary storm scenes, often with a hint of blue sky to demonstrate the wild weather was a temporary phenomenon and that order would soon be restored.

But by the end of the eighteenth century, a darker mood was emerging with painters such as the Frenchman Claude-Joseph Vernet painting tiny human figures striking anguished poses as a tempest rages around them. Like the great British depicter of storms, Turner, Vernet was said to have once had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a tempest in the interests of research.

For more on storms in art, films, literature and religion, the worst storms of all time, and how storms have changed the course of history, see my new book, Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion).