Monday, 9 January 2017

Are storms getting worse?

Most scientists now believe the world is warming up, with 15 of the hottest 16 years on record all happening since 2001; 2014 and 2015 both setting records as the hottest ever, and 2016 likely to surpass them both. Global warming would be expected to bring more powerful storms because it means more water evaporates into the air, and warmer air can hold more vapour so when it does rain, the downpours are heavier.

My new book, Storm: Nature and Culture describes how the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which seeks a consensus from the views of thousands of scientists all over the world, predicts that downpours and tropical storms will indeed get more powerful.
Global warming makes sea levels rise, so when storms whip up the oceans, they become even more devastating. And every day, there are 200,000 more humans – more people to be hurt, and more property to be damaged. Britain’s worst ever storm was the Great Storm of 1703, which killed about 8,000 on land and sea. A study found that if it happened again today, 18 million homes would be at risk.

The IPCC has warned that rising seas and more powerful storms could make a number of major cities, such as Mumbai, uninhabitable.

Storm: Nature and Culture also explores the role of storms in religion, art, films and literature, examines how storms have changed the course of history, and tells the story of the worst storms of all time.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Brexitwatch: the 'will of the people' myth - part 2

On December 15, I noted that these days you rarely hear any real argument for Brexit except that it is 'what people voted for', and I explained the flaws in this 'will of the people' justification and why it did not bind Theresa May's government to leave the EU.

But now Mrs May is going much further, claiming that the referendum result not only binds her government to leave the EU, but also the Single Market. That it means we have to end Freedom of Movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

It did no such thing. Voters were asked only if they wished to leave the EU. They were not asked their views on membership of the Single Market, the customs union, the EEA, Freedom of Movement, the ECJ etc etc, and any claim that the electorate gave a view on any of these issues is complete fabrication.

The only thing that can be said with certainty about the views of those who voted for Brexit is that they are deeply divided, and that there is no majority in the country for any particular form of Brexit. No 'will of the people' supports any of the extrapolations Mrs May is making from the referendum result, and if our MPs had any guts they would halt her in her tracks immediately.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Brexitwatch: New Year musings. Is Theresa May engineering a UK break-up?

1. The possibility that Brexit might break up the United Kingdom has generally been seen as unfortunate collateral damage if Theresa May is foolish enough to take us out of the EU, but perhaps detaching England (and possibly Wales) from the troublesome Scots and Northern Irish who do not vote Conservative, is the real Tory project?

Labour would find it very hard to win a majority in the resulting rump state of Little England, so however bad a UK break-up might be for the rest of us, it would be good for the Tories.

2. Michael ‘back-stabber’ Gove has partially backed down on his ‘I’ve had enough of experts’ stance. Even Gove seems to have realised that getting a randomly selected passenger to fly the aircraft instead of the pilot isn’t a great idea.

So now he’s retreated to: ‘we’ve had enough of economists’. Presumably because none of them has a good word for Brexit. Apparently we should all do a detailed examination of the hundreds of pages of complex evidence on which the economists' conclusions are based, and then make up our own minds. So what percentage of Brexit voters have assured you they are prepared to do that, Michael?

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.