This project is to take a look at weather events that took place a century ago, and relate them to the weather events we have experienced in recent times. Is the weather becoming weirder, as Thomas Friedman asserts? Are we now experiencing the sort of extreme, unprecedented weather phenomena that could be attributed to man-made climate change? Or were similar headline-making events happening 100 years ago, and are actually not so unusual, after all?
If you know me, then you’ll know that I incline to the latter way of thinking; I am sceptical about the theory of catastrophic man-made global warming, and I agree with outspoken meteorologist Joe Bastardi that extreme weather is not new to the world. You could argue, in fact, that I have already answered my own questions.
Be that as it may, however, it will still be an enjoyable exercise for me to head back in time to 1910 and see what dramatic weather events I can discover in that bygone age. Who knows – perhaps I will not find so many, and end up proving Mr Friedman’s point!
There have been numerous poster children for global warming, one of them, of course, being Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which some proclaimed a “wake-up call for America” and which prompted Al Gore to state that “What changed in the United States with Hurricane Katrina was a feeling that we have entered a period of consequences”. Along with the chaos, the loss of life and the damage to property and infrastructure caused by 175 miles-per-hour winds, it was surely the sobering images of a drowned city – New Orleans – that had the most impact. Photographs of boulevards covered by sheets of floodwater, news video coverage of abandoned homes and streets accessible only by boat convinced many that catastrophic global warming had now reached the stage where even a major city in one of the wealthiest of nations was not immune to its power.
And yet just over a century ago, back in January 1910, there was another city overwhelmed by a mighty flood. That city was Paris.
The year 1909 saw plenty of rain falling across France and its north-western environs. The 1909 Tour de France was famously plagued by appalling weather – torrential rain, hail and freezing temperatures (including snow in July! I wonder – does Thomas Friedman know how to say “global weirding” in French?) When Louis Bleriot made his record-breaking flight across the Channel on 25th July, he had to contend with powerful gusty winds and pouring rain. And there was record rainfall in Paris that summer.
The rain continued for month after month, as 1909 drew to its close. By 22nd January 1910, the river Seine had risen about six feet higher than its usual level, fed by a massive volume of run-off from the surrounding area (Paris is situated in the appropriately named Paris Basin, a low-lying region highly vulnerable to flooding.) Making the situation worse was the fact that the city’s excellent and modern network of sewers and its recently installed Métro system created, in effect, a subterranean water course which gave the floodwater easy and widespread access.
The Great Flood of Paris lasted for about a week or so, until 29th January, when the water began to subside at last. It caused approximately 400 million francs’ worth of damage (about 1.5 billion dollars or 1.4 billion euros today), and destroyed around 20,000 buildings. At its height, streets were several feet deep in floodwater, forcing residents and rescuers to paddle about in boats or shuffle over makeshift wooden walkways. Unlike in New Orleans, casualties appear to have been almost miraculously light – there is said to have been only a single fatality directly attributed to the flood itself (a soldier in a small boat, who was swept away); however, there may well have been others that were not recorded.
For a little while, before the modern world resumed with a vengeance, Parisians were transported back to an earlier epoch, unable to travel by Métro for three months and having to get about the city in obsolete horse-drawn buses. Georges Cain, a journalist working for the daily newspaper Le Figaro remarked: “Here we are, gone back in time 20 years. No electricity, no elevators, no telephones and it seems unbearable to us.”
Could global warming (man-made or otherwise) have been a factor in the Paris flood? Hardly. This took place right at the the start of the early 20th century warming period, and following a time of cooling that had begun in the 1880s. There would be plenty of northern hemisphere warming to come, culminating in the 1920s and 1930s, when some became concerned at the loss of polar sea ice, but that would be decades in the future.
So what were the causes? Geography and geology played their part, ensuring that huge volumes of floodwater in the region were contained and funnelled towards Paris. Weather also played its part, of course, the months of continuous rain having been caused by persistent low-pressure systems, themselves influenced by oceanic cycles. And land use was a factor, the Parisians having unwittingly aided the flood by developing and extending the sewers and the Métro.
What I’m seeing here is a convincing demonstration of Nature’s power that left a great city underwater, but at a time of relative cold when atmospheric CO2, we are told, was still at around 290 ppm. Should an inundation of similar type and magnitude overtake yet another of our mighty cities, here in the 21st century, I think we might do well to recall that such events are not unprecedented.
The picture for this blog was created using a photo I found on Wikipedia; there are a number of similar photos on Historic Cities, an interesting website which has a good collection of online documents, mostly ancient city maps. I gathered other information from Paris Under Water, a site connected with a new book on this subject. Entitled Paris Under Water: How The City of Light Survived The Great Flood of 1910, by historian Jeffrey H. Jackson, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010, it promises to be an excellent read – definitely one for my list.