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10 Biggest Snowstorms of All Time

HowStuffWorks “10 Biggest Snowstorms of All Time”.

Anyone who’s ever lived in a chilly climate knows snowstorms well. Sometimes the weather forecast gives ample warning, but other times these storms catch us by surprise. Plows struggle to keep roads clear, schools are closed, events are canceled, flights are delayed and everyone gets sore backs from all the shoveling and snowblowing.

But there are those rare snowstorms that exceed all forecasts, break all records and cause mass devastation (even if it’s devastation that will melt in a few days or weeks). These storms are the worst of the worst, weather events that seem more like elemental blasts of pure winter rather than a simple combination of wind, temperature and precipitation.

Defining the 10 “biggest” snowstorms can be a tricky task. You can’t simply rely on objective measures like the amount of snow. Often, the worst storms involve relatively modest snowfalls whipped into zero-visibility by hurricane-force winds. Some storms are worse than others because they impact major urban areas, or are so widespread that they affect several major urban areas. Timing can play a role as well — a storm during weekday rush hour is worse than one on a Saturday morning, and a freak early storm when leaves are still on the trees can cause enormous amounts of damage. In fact, meteorologists have developed a system similar to the one used to classify hurricanes to measure the severity of winter storms. The Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS) takes in account a variety of factors and generates a single number that signifies a storm’s severity, usually on a scale from one to 10 — and sometimes higher [source: Science Daily].

With those factors in mind, here is our list of the biggest snowstorms of all time.

10: The Blizzard of 1888 — Northeastern United States

This snowstorm was so massive it became a historical event. In terms of storm severity factors, this one had it all: enormous amounts of snow, frigid temperatures, howling winds whipping up monstrous snow drifts — and a widespread area of effect that covered the entire northeastern United States from New England to the Chesapeake Bay, including major metropolitan areas like New York City [source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. More than 400 people died during the storm, including more than 100 who were lost at sea.

The storm struck in early March and started out as a serious rain storm. From Sunday night to Monday morning, the temperature plummeted and the rain turned to snow. In the end, New York City received 22 inches (56 centimeters) of snow, shutting the city down and causing floods when the snow melted. Other places received much more: 58 inches (1.5 meters) of snow in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and 45 inches (1.14 m) in New Haven, Conn. Snow drifts as high as 50 or 60 feet (15.2 to 18.3 m) were reported on Long Island, and wind gusts were reported as fast as 80 mph (128.7 kph).

 

The “Storm of the Century” certainly lived up to its name, affecting about half of the population of the U.S. in 1993.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

9: The Storm of the Century, 1993 — Eastern United States

In 1993, an early March storm surged up the east coast of the United States, unleashing snow and wind on a wider area than any other storm in recorded history. Massive snowfalls were recorded from eastern Canada to Alabama. Parts of 26 states were hit; roughly half of the entire U.S. population was affected, including many large cities [source: NOAA]. Two hundred and seventy Americans were killed. This storm is often compared to the Blizzard of 1888 — in many areas, it wasn’t as severe and didn’t drop as much snow, but it covered a much larger area.

This storm broke numerous weather records. A low temperature of minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 24.4 degrees Celsius) was recorded at Burlington, Vt., while even Daytona Beach, Fla., felt the effects, with a low of 31 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 0.56 degrees Celsius). Birmingham, Ala., received more than a foot of snow (30.5 cm), with four inches (10.2 cm) falling as far south as Atlanta, Ga. Snowfall totals were amplified farther north — Syracuse, N.Y. got more than 40 inches (1.02 m), for example. Mountainous areas in the Appalachians and Catskills got the most snow, with recorded totals of 50 inches (1.27 m) or more. Wind speeds topped 70 mph (112.7 kph) in many places, and topped 100 mph (161 kph) in a few locations. Using storm surge and barometric pressure data, meteorologists say the Storm of the Century was the equivalent of a category three hurricane; it ranked a 13.2 on the NESIS scale.

8: New York City Blizzard of 2006

This storm was relatively mild; it covered a smaller area than other major snow storms and didn’t have high winds. In fact, it wasn’t technically a blizzard at all, since the scientific definition of a blizzard requires sustained wind speeds above 35 mph (56.3 kph) and visibility under 500 feet (152.4 meters). But this storm is notable for the one place it did hit: New York City.

The weather station at New York’s Central Park Zoo recorded a total of 26.9 inches (68.3 cm) of snow from the storm. That total equals the greatest snowfall in New York City recorded history and breaks a record that had been set in 1947 [source: NOAA].

 

A group of boys play in the snow in Tibet, site of one of history’s biggest snowstorms.

China Photos/Getty Images

7: Lhunze County, Tibet — 2008

Tibet is known for some of the world’s tallest mountains, including Mount Everest. It gets bitterly cold there in the winter, but the climate is generally very arid. Some passes through the Himalayas remain passable throughout the year because of the low snowfall rates. For that reason, the snow storm that hit Lhunze County in October 2008 was a shock to its citizens.

Chinese officials reported an average snow depth of 59 inches (1.5 m). Some villages experienced continuous snow for 36 hours, dropping five or six feet (1.52 or 1.83 m) of snow on the ground [source: China Daily]. The amount of snow was so great that many buildings collapsed, resulting in seven deaths. Roads were closed for days as rescue crews fought to clear them and bring food to people trapped by the storm.

The economic effects of the storm were particularly harsh, as many locals were forced to slaughter or sell off large parts of their yak herds, or lost them entirely in the storm’s aftermath.

6: Mount Shasta, Calif. — 1959

In 1959, a storm dumped a huge amount of snow on Mount Shasta, Calif. The 189 inches (4.8 m) of snow recorded at the Mount Shasta Ski Bowl is the largest snowfall from a single storm in North America [source: NOAA]. However, many believe that 1993’s “Storm of the Century” has eclipsed this mark in terms of the actual volume of snow, due to heavy snowfall across such a massive area.

Oddly enough, the storm didn’t have much of an effect on locals. For one thing, residents of the Mount Shasta area were used to big snowstorms, so aside from some delays while they waited for plows to clear the wet, heavy snow, it didn’t affect them much. Also, the bulk of the snow fell away from the communities of Weed and Mount Shasta City, covering unpopulated mountainous areas. Few people at the time even noted that the town had broken the single storm snowfall record [source: College of the Siskiyous].

 

5: The Eastern Canadian Blizzard of 1971 — Quebec and Ontario, Canada

This March nor’easter (a powerful storm that blows in from the Atlantic Ocean) created classic blizzard conditions throughout eastern Canada, dumping a foot and a half (45.7 cm) of snow on Montreal and more than two feet (61 cm) elsewhere in the region. On top of the snowfall, the storm produced heavy winds that whipped the snow into the air and obliterated visibility. These conditions, combined with frigid temperatures, resulted in more than 20 fatalities.

Although many Canadians took the wintry blast in stride — residents of Cornwall, Ontario were encouraged to come to work despite the storm — this blizzard caused a event virtually unheard of in Canadian history: the cancellation of a Montreal Canadiens hockey game [source: Envirozine]. It was the first time that a game at the Montreal Forum had been postponed since the flu epidemic of 1918 [source: LCN].

4: The New England Blizzard of 1978

This dreadful storm stalled over New England for more than a day, dropping up to 4 inches (10.2 cm) of snow per hour. Boston, Mass. and several communities in Rhode Island were hit hardest, but even New York City — located some four hours south of Boston — felt the storm’s effects. Meteorologists estimate snow totals between 1 and 3 feet (30.5 and 91.4 cm), with Boston’s total accumulation of 27.1 inches (68.8 cm) setting the city’s single-storm record [source: NOAA]. Wind speeds measured well over 100 mph (161 kph), causing severe visibility and drifting problems.

This storm was worse than most for two additional reasons. First, it struck during a period of high tides, which led to some of the most severe coastal flooding that region had ever seen. Second, it struck in the afternoon. Since the morning had been clear, most people had gone to school and work as usual. The timing of the storm left thousands of people stranded in their cars on roads and highways throughout the area [source: Hurricanes-blizzards-noreasters.com]. This contributed to the storm’s high death rate; more than 100 people died in Massachusetts and Rhode Island [source: NOAA].

 

3: The Great Snow of 1717 — New England

The Great Snow was really a series of four storms that struck in quick succession in late February and early March of 1717. No one is quite sure how widespread the effects were, as record-keeping was spotty in colonial New England. Heavy snow was recorded as far away as Philadelphia, but Boston got hit the hardest.

That winter had already been a snowy one, with reports of five feet (1.5 m) of snow already on the ground when the Great Snow began. Three or four more feet (91.4 or 122 cm) were added to that total, with drifts reportedly reaching 25 feet (7.6 m), burying entire houses or forcing people to exit from second story windows [source: NSIDC].

Such a massive snowfall would’ve hit hard in any era. But at a time when one could travel only by horseback or on foot, when no method of snow removal beyond a shovel and a strong back was available, and when many small communities struggled in ordinary winter conditions, the Great Snow hit especially hard. Roads were blocked for a week or more, and travel between New York City and Boston was impossible. In fact, there wasn’t really anything that could be done about the roads — except to wait for warmer weather to melt the snow.

 

2: The Buffalo Blizzard of 1977

A modest snowfall and brutal winds averaging 45 mph (72.4 kph), with gusts of 75 mph (120.7 kph) would’ve made for a nasty storm at any time, but an unusually cold and snowy winter had left several feet of packed snow already on the ground. As if that weren’t bad enough, snow covered much of the frozen surface of nearby Lake Erie, giving the wind even more snow to drift and blow. The result was zero visibility and roads blocked by snow. The storm brought intense cold (the temperature dropped more than 20 degrees in just a few hours) and stranded people at work or, worse, in their cars [source: NOAA]. The conditions led to 29 deaths in Western New York and Southern Ontario. Storm effects were felt into Canada and as far east as Watertown, N.Y.

Although the city of Buffalo generally gets less snow than other nearby cities and has warmer winter temperatures than many northern regions, this one storm cemented Buffalo’s reputation as the blizzard capital of the United States. In fact, 1977 still holds Buffalo’s record for the most snow in one season — 199.4 inches (5.06 m) [source: NOAA].

 

 

The Midwestern U.S. has seen its share of snowstorms; the Blizzard of 1967 dumped two feet of snow on the region and killed more than 70 people.

Scott Olson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1: The Blizzard of 1967 – Midwestern U.S.

The Midwest has suffered through many brutal blizzards and monstrous snow storms. However, many parts of this region are more sparsely populated than the eastern U.S., so the effects of these storms haven’t been as acute. This storm, however, hit not just Chicago but cities as disparate as Kalamazoo, Mich., and Gary, Ind. [source: NOAA].

Snow totals topped 2 feet (61 cm), and winds exceeded 50 mph (80.5 kph). Sadly, the storm left 76 dead — 26 in Chicago alone [source: Chicago Tribune]. It set the record for a 24-hour snowfall in Chicago (23 inches or 58.4 cm). Strangely, the area saw record high temperatures in the 60s and a severe tornado outbreak in the days before the storm hit.

For more information on snowstorms and other weather-related events, take a look at the links on the next page.

Eruption News and Volcanoes From Space for October 28, 2011 | Wired Science | Wired.com

Vulcan’s View: Eruption News and Volcanoes From Space for October 28, 2011 | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, Chile

 

New Smithsonian/USGS Global Volcanism Program Weekly Volcanic Activity Report, new views of volcanoes from space!

Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, Chile

The eruption at Chile’s Puyehue-Cordón Caulle continues after starting in early June of this year. The current plume is much smaller than during the opening phases of the eruption, topping out at ~4.5 km (some as high as 7.5 km). However, high atmospheric winds are carrying the ash away and disrupting air travel throughout the region. Depending on the wind, the ash from Puyehue-Cordón Caulle is being carried 120-250 km from the vent, depending on the winds.

Once the ash and volcanic tephra is erupted, it isn’t the end to the hazard they pose. This image shows the accumulation of ash and volcanic tephra (video) on the waterways around Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, especially Lago Huishue, Gris and Constania on the eastern side of the image. Some smaller lakes are completely covered in volcanic debris. These deposits can be easily mobilized into the drainages and produce small lahars and mudflows that bring debris even further away. The drainage in the lower left hand side is grey with ash and volcanic debris that can clearly be seen entering Lago Puyehue as large, grey plumes. These accumulations of volcanic debris will likely be remobilized for years to decades after the eruption ends.

Image: The ash plume from Puyehue-Cordón Caulle seen on October 25, 2011. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory

 

Tungurahua, Ecuador

 

Tungurahua, Ecuador

Tungurahua, one of the more active volcanoes in South America, continues to rumble. Only 140 km from Quito, the volcano produced a 7.3 km / 24,000 ash/steam plume last week. The plume drifted in the opposite direction of the one pictured in this 2004 MODIS image of another eruption at Tungurahua.

Image: Ash plume from Tungurahua in Ecuador seen on January 14, 2004. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

 

Karymsky and neighboring volcanoes, Russia

 

Karymsky and neighboring volcanoes, Russia

The busy Kamchatka peninsula is well represented yet again in this week’s Volcanic Activity Report. I’ll focus on the activity at Karymsky, which was mostly moderate ash plumes that reached ~3.3 km / 10,000 feet and a thermal anomaly noted at the summit. This likely means a plug or dome of hot magma is the summit of the volcano and is the source for the explosive activity producing the plume. What you see above is a 2006 image of a plume from Karymsky that also captures of its notable volcanic neighbors, including Kronotsky, Krasheninnikov, Kikhpinych, Bolshoi Semiachik and Akademia Nauk.

Image: A collection of Kamchatkan volcanoes seen on November 29, 2006. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

 

Manam, Papau New Guinea

 

Manam, Papau New Guinea

Manam is an island volcano off Papau New Guinea and really, there is nothing else on the island except the volcano. It has been quite active over the last decade and evacuations of the few people who choose to live in Manam have been problematic with the constant activity, even after fatalities during an eruption in 2004. Currently the volcano is producing 3.7 km / 12,000 ash and steam plumes that drift east over the Pacific.

Image: A close up view of Manam in Papau New Guinea with young dark ash and lava flows on the flanks separated by green, vegetated areas. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

 

El Hierro, Canary Islands

 

El Hierro, Canary Islands

What Vulcan’s View would be complete without a shot of the ongoing eruption at El Hierro in the Canary Islands? This new image from October 27, 2011 shows the submarine plume from the new vents off the southern coast of El Hierro. Some of the material in the plume has made its way around the western shores to begin to wrap around the island. The most fascinating aspect of this plume is what sort of effect the plume will have on the ocean waters and ocean bottom environments, especially with how well mapped the plume has been by satellite. Be sure to check out the gallery of images from the BBC Mundo.

Image: An October 27, 2011 image of the submarine plume from the eruption at El Hierro. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

 

Popocatépetl, Mexico

 

Popocatépetl, Mexico

The activity at Popocatépetl isn’t exactly headline grabbing: steam-and-ash plumes with maybe some very minimal ash deposits. Par for the course for the Mexican volcano. I included Popo just to remind people about the threat the volcano poses to Mexico City and its outlying communities.

Image: A January 4, 2011 image of a diffuse steam-and-ash plume from Popocatépetl in Mexico. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

 

Suwanose-jima, Japan

 

Suwanose-jima, Japan

Another regular in the Weekly Volcanic Activity Report, Suwanose-jima, is one of the many volcanoes of the Ryukyu Islands. Unlike Sakura-jima, which gets a lot of the attention due to its proximity to a populated area, Suwanose-jima is on an depopulated island. The former population of the island left due to the volcanic threat posed by Suwanose-jima. The 2009 image of the volcano shows a moderate ash plume extending to the northeast from Suwanose-jima.

Image: The thick ash plume from Japan’s Suwanose-jima as seen on July 5, 2009. Image courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory.

History of deadly earthquakes

BBC News – History of deadly earthquakes.

Does NOT include the 6.9 that just hit Peru…..

 

Christchurch earthquake scene Many of the homes damaged in New Zealand’s Christchurch quake cannot be rebuilt
How earthquakes happen

Earthquakes have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the last 100 years and improvements in technology have only slightly reduced the death toll.

23 October 2011

More than 200 people are killed and 1,000 are injured in a powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake which hits south-eastern Turkey; many of the victims are in the town of Ercis, where dozens of buildings have fallen.

11 March 2011

A devastating magnitude 8.9 quake strikes Japan, leaving more than 20,000 people dead or missing. The tremor generates a massive tsunami along the Japanese coast and triggers the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

22 February 2011

A magnitude 6.3 earthquake shatters the New Zealand city of Christchurch, killing more than 160 people and damaging some 100,000 homes.

14 April 2010

At least 400 people die after a magnitude 6.9 earthquake strikes western China’s Qinghai province.

27 February 2010

A magnitude 8.8 earthquake hits central Chile north-east of the second city, Concepcion. Official figures put the total number of people at over 700.

12 January 2010

About 230,000 die in and around the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, as a 7.0 magnitude earthquake strikes the city.

30 September 2009

At least 1,000 people die and at least 1,000 remain missing after an earthquake strikes the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

6 April 2009

An earthquake hits the historic Italian city of L’Aquila, killing about 300 people.Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

29 October 2008

Up to 300 people are killed in the Pakistani province of Balochistan after an earthquake of 6.4 magnitude struck 45 miles (70km) north of Quetta.

12 May 2008

Up to 87,000 people are killed or missing and as many as 370,000 injured by an earthquake in just one county in China’s south-western Sichuan province.

The tremor, measuring 7.8, struck 57 miles (92km) from the provincial capital Chengdu during the early afternoon.

15 August 2007

At least 519 people are killed in Peru’s coastal province of Ica, as a 7.90-magnitude undersea earthquake strikes about 90 miles (145km) south-east of the capital, Lima.

17 July 2006

A 7.7 magnitude undersea earthquake triggers a tsunami that strikes a 125 miles (200km) stretch of the southern coast of Java, killing more than 650 people on the Indonesian island.

27 May 2006

More than 5,700 people die when a magnitude 6.2 quake hits the Indonesian island of Java, devastating the city of Yogyakarta and surrounding areas.

1 April 2006

Seventy people are killed and some 1,200 injured when an earthquake measuring 6.0 strikes a remote region of western Iran.

8 October 2005

An earthquake measuring 7.6 strikes northern Pakistan and the disputed Kashmir region, killing more than 73,000 people and leaving millions homeless.

28 March 2005

About 1,300 people are killed in an 8.7 magnitude quake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Nias, west of Sumatra.

22 February 2005

Hundreds die in a 6.4 magnitude quake centred in a remote area near Zarand in Iran’s Kerman province.

26 December 2004

Hundreds of thousands are killed across Asia when an earthquake measuring 9.2 triggers sea surges that spread across the region.

24 February 2004

At least 500 people die in an earthquake which strikes towns on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast.

26 December 2003

More than 26,000 people are killed when an earthquake destroys the historic city of Bam in southern Iran.

21 May 2003

Algeria suffers its worst earthquake in more than two decades. More than 2,000 people die and more than 8,000 are injured in a quake felt across the sea in Spain.

1 May 2003

More than 160 people are killed, including 83 children in a collapsed dormitory, in south-eastern Turkey.

24 February 2003

More than 260 people die and almost 10,000 homes are destroyed in Xinjiang region, in western China.

31 October 2002

Italy is traumatised by the loss of an entire class of children, killed in the southern village of San Giuliano di Puglia when their school building collapses on them.

26 January 2001

An earthquake measuring magnitude 7.9 devastates much of Gujarat state in north-western India, killing nearly 20,000 people and making more than a million homeless. Bhuj and Ahmedabad are among the towns worst hit.

12 November 1999

Around 400 people die when an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale strikes Ducze, in north-west Turkey.

21 September 1999

Taiwan is hit by a quake measuring 7.6 that kills nearly 2,500 people and causes damage to every town on the island.

17 August 1999

An magnitude 7.4 earthquake rocks the Turkish cities of Izmit and Istanbul, leaving more than 17,000 dead and many more injured.

30 May 1998

Northern Afghanistan is hit by a major earthquake, killing 4,000 people.

May 1997

More than 1,600 killed in Birjand, eastern Iran, in an earthquake of magnitude 7.1.

27 May 1995

The far eastern island of Sakhalin is hit by a massive earthquake, measuring 7.5, which claims the lives of 1,989 Russians.

17 January 1995

The Hyogo quake hits the city of Kobe in Japan, killing 6,430 people.

30 September 1993

About 10,000 villagers are killed in western and southern India.

21 June 1990

About 40,000 people die in a tremor in the northern Iranian province of Gilan.

7 December 1988

An earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale devastates north-west Armenia, killing 25,000 people.

19 September 1985

Mexico City is shaken by a huge earthquake which razes buildings and kills 10,000 people.

4 March 1977

Some 1,500 people are killed in an earthquake that hit close to the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

28 July 1976

The Chinese city of Tangshan is reduced to rubble in a quake that claims at least 250,000 lives.

23 December 1972

Up to 10,000 people are killed in the Nicaraguan capital Managua by an earthquake that measures 6.5 on the Richter scale. The devastation caused by the earthquake was blamed on badly built high-rise buildings that easily collapsed.

31 May 1970

An earthquake high in the Peruvian Andes triggers a landslide burying the town of Yungay and killing 66,000 people.

26 July 1963

An earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale strikes the Macedonian capital of Skopje killing 1,000 and leaving 100,000 homeless.

22 May 1960

The world’s strongest recorded earthquake devastates Chile, with a reading of 9.5 on the Richter scale. A tsunami 30ft (10m) high eliminates entire villages in Chile and kills 61 hundreds of miles away in Hawaii.

1 September 1923

The Great Kanto earthquake, with its epicentre just outside Tokyo, claims the lives of 142,800 people in the Japanese capital.

18 April 1906

San Francisco is hit by a series of violent shocks which last up to a minute. Between 700 and 3,000 people die either from collapsing buildings or in the subsequent fire.

10 Oldest Known Diseases

HowStuffWorks “10 Oldest Known Diseases”.

In the study of ancient diseases, nothing speaks like the dead. “Bone abnormalities are a strong identification source,” said Dr. Anne Grauer, anthropologist at Loyola University Chicago and president of the Paleopathology Association, during a personal interview. So it’s relatively easy to date tuberculosis due to the lesions it leaves on bones. Pneumonia may be more ancient than TB, but lung tissue doesn’t hold up so well after being buried.

“Another source for dating diseases is genomic data,” said Dr. Charlotte Roberts, archaeologist at the University of Durham and author of the book “The Archaeology of Disease.” DNA testing of samples from mummies and skeletons can conclusively identify disease. And even without the evidence of a body, genes in existing samples of TB and leprosy bacteria suggest prehistoric origin.

But the most difficult trick in defining the oldest known diseases may be in how you define the word “disease.” For the purposes of this article, we’ll explore only human, infectious, viral or bacterial diseases. So nix tooth decay, psoriasis, gout, obesity, rickets, epilepsy, arthritis and other human difficulties that are perhaps best classified as “conditions.”

Notably absent from this list are some of history’s biggest killers, including influenza, measles, and the black plague. This is because these diseases require and the level of population density that didn’t develop until humans began living in cities. Influenza, measles, and the plague are social. Malaria isn’t.

We’ve listed 10 of the oldest known diseases, listed in no particular order. On the next page, we’ll get started with a condition that thrives in close quarters.

Around 400 B.C., the Athenian physician Hippocrates catalogued the diseases of his world. Cholera was on the list. But while Hippocrates provides the first proof of cholera beyond a reasonable doubt, the disease likely originated along the Ganges River while Athens was still a very young place.

Cholera lives in many of the world’s water sources, but it’s most dangerous when it has an environment in which there are many people among whom it can spread. The Ganges River happens to be one of the most ancient locations of human population density, and so it was long, long ago that upstream users gathered in the numbers needed to pollute the water for those downstream. In other words, as more people become infected with cholera, they pollute the water supply with more bacteria, which in turn infects more people.

Interestingly, the same problem might have been a major factor in the loss of troops in Hannibal’s march across the Alps. With a 50,000-soldier train, the troops and animals in front would have encountered pristine mountain streams, but those in back would have been forced to deal with putrid and potentially cholera-rich water [source: Hunt].

9: Typhoid

From 430 to 426 B.C., a great plague swept through the city-state of Athens. The historian Thucydides describes the symptoms:

“People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head and the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. If they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal.”

The disease couldn’t have come at a worse time. The plague contributed to Athens’ eventual loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War and a long hiatus for democracy in world history.

What was the cause of this plague?

8: Leprosy

The Bible passage Leviticus 13:2 reads, “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh like the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.”

But this isn’t the first concrete mention of the disease. That honor goes to the Egyptian “Ebers Papyrus,” written in 1550 B.C., which recommends, “If you examine a large tumor of Khonsu in any part of a man and it is terrible and it has made many swellings. Something has appeared in it like that in which there is air … Then you shall say concerning it: It is a swelling of Khonsu. You should not do anything against it” [source: Nunn].

While typhoid and cholera are fairly straightforward in their aggressive spread through water sources, leprosy relies on another dispersion strategy — that of dormancy. People can carry the bacteria that cause leprosy for 20 years or more before showing symptoms, and during this time can spread the disease.

One historical challenge in treating leprosy was diagnosis. In its early stages of expression, leprosy looks much like syphilis and somewhat like psoriasis. Misdiagnosis landed many psoriasis sufferers in leper colonies where many eventually did, ironically, contract and die from leprosy due to increased exposure.

7: Smallpox

Generally, the goal of mummification is to preserve soft tissue. So, as you would expect, Egypt provides a treasure trove of information on ancient, soft tissue diseases.

One of the first researchers to turn a paleopathological eye on Egyptian mummies was Sir Marc Armand Ruffer, who in his 1921 book “Studies of the Palaeopathology of Egypt” described three mummies with “dome shaped vesicles” extremely similar to those expected of smallpox [source: Ruffer]. The most ancient of these mummies was dated 1580 B.C. and the most recent was the mummy of Ramses V, who died in 1157 B.C. After his own inspection of the mummy, Donald R. Hopkins, who participated in the World Health Organization’s Smallpox Eradication Program, wrote of Ramses V, “Inspection of the mummy revealed a rash of elevated ‘pustules’, each about 2 to 4 millimeters in diameter, that was most distinct on the lower face, neck, and shoulders, but was also visible on the arms.” [source: Hopkins]

Is this conclusive? No, not necessarily, and to date there has been no modern analysis of Ramses V that could definitively determine if his condition was, in fact, smallpox. But the circumstantial evidence seems strong.

Smallpox is one of history’s greatest killers, responsible for 300 to 500 million deaths in the 20th century [source: Saint Louis University].

6: Rabies

Rabies is ingenious: Not only does it infect a host, but it also hijacks the host’s brain in a way that makes the host want to bite things. This is how rabies gets a ticket to ride. And it’s been doing it since at least 2300 B.C., when it was described in the Eshuma Code of Babylon [source: Rupprecht et al.]

The first person known to have survived rabies without a vaccination is Jeanna Giese, a Wisconsin teen who was bitten in 2004 by a rabid bat while at church. The New York Times reports that Jeanna went a month between bite and treatment, and was admitted to the hospital with symptoms of full-blown rabies [source: Rosenthal]. Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin initiated a cocktail of coma-inducing and antiviral drugs, though Giese’s family credits prayer with saving the girl’s life.

5: Malaria

The Romans offered the first cure for malaria: an amulet worn around the neck, inscribed with the powerful incantation “abracadabra” [source: Shah]. Over the years, we’ve attempted various other cures: adding oil to stagnant puddles to smother mosquito larvae, using pesticides, vaccines and nets, and even leveraging high-tech solutions such as a laser that shoots mosquitoes in midair. But the disease continues to infect 300 million people every year, killing 1 million of them [source: Shah].

The Wall Street Journal reports that malaria is responsible for half of all human deaths since the Stone Age [source: Shah].

Granted, that statistic extends the origin of the disease back in time past its first definite mention, which was in the Chinese “Nei Ching (“The Canon of Medicine”), around the year 2700 B.C. [source: CDC].

4: Pneumonia

People breathe more than 11,000 liters (3,000 gallons) of air every day [source: Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality]. And so, as you would expect, the lungs are a favorite home of bacteria, viruses, fungi and even parasites. And when anything foreign colonizes the lungs, the most common result is fluid. The umbrella term we use to describe fluid in the lungs is pneumonia.

Hippocrates wrote that fluid in the lungs should be called pneumonia if, “the fever be acute, and if there be pains on either side, or in both, and if expiration be if cough be present, and the sputa expectorated be of a blond or livid color” [source: Hippocrates]. But he also distinctly calls it a “disease of the ancients.”

Where exactly does pneumonia place in this list of oldest known diseases? Because it’s a soft tissue disease, the archaeological record isn’t strong. But it’s likely that various forms of pneumonia have been around as long as our lungs.

3: Tuberculosis

In 2008, a team of scientists from University College London excavated the submerged ancient city of Alit-Yam, off the coast of Israel. There, they found the buried remains of a mother and her child. Both skeletons showed bone lesions characteristic of tuberculosis [source: Lloyd]. DNA testing confirmed it: Tuberculosis is at least 9,000 years old.

Interestingly, this dig also lent evidence to an ongoing chicken-or-the-egg debate of whether we got TB from cows or they got it from us. In Alit-Yam, human skeletons showed signs of TB, while DNA from animal skeletons didn’t [source: Hershkovitz et al.]. So it seems cows are not the killers we once thought.

Other historical speculation has proved equally false: Neither the fossil nor DNA records support the cause of TB as nightly revelry with fairies and the resulting lack of rest, nor is the disease the result of witches who transform the victim into a horse and then ride the victim to nightly meetings, as were once thought [source: Briggs].

While the Alit-Yam finding is the oldest confirmed case of TB, characteristic lesions have been found on bones found in Turkey, dated about 500,000 years ago [source: Lloyd].

2: Trachoma

Trachoma is a chronic infection of the upper eyelid that eventually results in the eyelid constricting and turning the eyelashes in toward the cornea. Over time, the rubbing of the constricted eyelid and especially the eyelash makes the patient go blind. This is what happened to Aetius, Paulus Aeginetus, Alexander, Trailaus, Horace and Cicero. And trachoma is described in Hippocrates and in the Egyptian Ebers papyrus [sources: Siniscal and Nunn].

But researchers make a compelling case for earlier trachoma found in a corner of the world little associated with early diseases: Australia. Aboriginal skeletons from 8000 B.C. show a common skull lesion around the eyes [source: Webb]. Scientists determined that these lesions were due to bone infection that had come from soft tissue infection. Though there are a few eye diseases that could fit this bill, the skeletons were found in the Australian region in which trachoma is most common today.

1: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

Mitochondria are small organelles found in nearly every cell in the human body. And they perform a function essential to human life, converting glucose from food to energy called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which cells can use.

But Mitochondria carry their own genetic material — separate from human DNA — and these genes look a lot like those of bacteria. In other words, it’s very likely that the mitochondria that we depend on for survival are the products of an ancient infection [source: Andersson et al.].

Whatever the infection, it predates animal life, let alone humans. So there’s no use exploring the fossil record. Instead, researchers compared the genes of mitochondria to those of existing bacteria. The closest match was to bacteria of order Rickettsiales, many of which cause diseases — including Rocky Mountain spotted fever [source: Eremeeva and Dasch, Andersson et al.].

But remember, we’re talking about a disease that existed before animal life. So the oldest disease isn’t really Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever itself, but some unnamed proto-disease with genetic similarity.

Long, long ago bacteria invaded a cell. And because of this infection, we have life as we know it.

Read on to the next page for more infectious details.

Mystery Fossils Link Fungi to Ancient Mass Extinction

Mystery Fossils Link Fungi to Ancient Mass Extinction | Wired Science | Wired.com.

By Scott K. Johnson, Ars Technica

Of the five mass extinctions in the Earth’s past, one stands above the rest in magnitude: the Permian-Trassic extinction, known as the Great Dying. It saw the disappearance of almost 60 percent of all families, and over 80 percent of all genera — in the ocean, that added up to about 96 percent of all species. The cause of this event, 250 million years in the past, is still a matter of debate.

The most likely culprit is the prolific volcanism of the Siberian Traps— the erupted basalt still covers about 2 million square kilometers — but other events may have also played a role. Evidence for a massive destabilization of methane hydrates on the seafloor (a phenomenon described as “The Big Burp”), ocean anoxia and even contemporary asteroid impacts have all been found.

A couple of recent papers in the journal Geology have brought some new information to the discussion, and may help make the picture just a little bit clearer.

 

One source of significant mystery has been the nature of the organic microfossils that are common in rocks dated to the time of the extinction worldwide. The tiny fossils resemble filamentous colonies of cells, but have evaded positive identification.

Some researchers think they are the remains of fungi, while others argue that they are algae instead. There’s evidence on both sides, but the two scenarios represent very different conditions. The fungus indicates a widespread dying of woody vegetation, while algae suggest extensive swamps forming along river systems.

A paper published this month shows that the microfossils are almost identical morphologically to a group of pathogenic soil fungi that can infect trees. If its authors have identified these correctly, it fits in well with an overall picture showing loss of forests and topsoil. The demise of tree species is clear in pollen studies, and there is a lot of evidence for greatly accelerated soil erosion, including increased sediment deposition in deltas with lots of soil-derived organic debris.

Modern studies show that drought stress and UV damage, both of which could be caused by the massive releases of volcanic gases from the Siberian Traps, can make trees susceptible to fungal infection.

Connecting a fungus to a global mass extinction may seem tenuous, but the authors point out that processes down in the world of the very small are often overlooked in any extinction discussions. They summarize by saying, “There may have been a variety of other globally operating environmental stress factors, but whatever sequence of events triggered ecosystem destabilization on land, the aggressiveness of soil-borne pathogenic fungi must have been an integral factor involved in Late Permian forest decline worldwide.”

Separately, another recent paper has pinned down the timing of the extinction. It’s not considered to have been as sudden as the End Cretaceous extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, but the precise timeline has been tough to get a handle on, and estimates have varied.

The research group looked at some marine Permian-Triassic rocks in China that recorded cyclical global climate patterns. Climate controlled the amount of terrestrial sediment that was deposited in this area, which shows up as changes in grain size through the rock layers. Using a device that measures magnetic susceptibility, they were able to precisely quantify changes in grain size across the rock layers. Together with some uranium-lead isotopic ages, they were able to pick out the orbital cycles that control climate, including the prominent 400,000-year eccentricity cycle, and use them to precisely date the extinction interval.

A couple of interesting things show up in the data. For one, minima in several of the orbital cycles coincide shortly before the start of the extinction period. (Think of three sine waves with different wavelengths — at certain points in time, all three troughs will line up by chance.) That could have made for some unusual climatic conditions. Additionally, the effect of the 100,000-year orbital cycle on climate seems diminished for as long as 2 million years afterward.

It’s dangerous to extrapolate to the big picture from records like this, but there’s enough there to warrant further investigation of the orbital forcings.

In the end, they found that the extinction took 600,000 to 700,000 years to play out. This is consistent with the idea that several events acted in concert to destabilize ecosystems and cause the loss of so many species, meaning a significant length of time would be needed. It was simply a nasty time to be a living thing on planet Earth. Some advice for any time travelers out there — steer well clear of the Great Dying.

Image: Photomicrographic comparison of fossil and modern filamentous fungal structures. A: Sclerotium of modern Rhizoctonia aff. solani, aggregated monilioid hyphae (Paul Cannon/Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International, CABI). B: Modern R. solani, branched monilioid hyphae (Lane Tredway/American Phytopathological Society). C, D: Late Permian Reduviasporonites stoschianus, branched monilioid hyphae. E: R. stoschianus, aggregated hyphae with dominant narrow cells. F: R. stoschianus, aggregated monilioid hyphae. G: R. stoschianus, segment of small intact disk-like sclerotium. Scale bar for all images is 100 ?m.

See Also:

Citation: Geology, 2011. DOI: 10.1130/G32126.1 and Geology, 2011. DOI: 10.1130/G32178.1

Earth's time bombs may have killed the dinosaurs

Earth’s time bombs may have killed the dinosaurs – environment – 27 July 2011 – New Scientist.

THE fate of the dinosaurs may have been sealed half a billion years before life even appeared, by two geological time bombs that still lurk near our planet’s core.

A controversial new hypothesis links massive eruptions of lava that coincided with many of Earth’s largest extinctions to two unusually hot blobs of mantle 2800 kilometres beneath the crust. The blobs formed just after the Earth itself, 4.5 billion years ago. If the hypothesis is correct, they have sporadically burst through the planet’s crust, creating enormous oceans of lava which poisoned the atmosphere and wiped out entire branches of the tree of life.

Debates still rage over what caused different mass extinctions, including the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. An asteroid that smashed into Earth 65 million years ago is no doubt partially to blame for the Cretaceous giants’ demise. But a less-known school of thought has it that this and other extinctions occurred when cracks in the crust let huge amounts of lava gush from the bowels of the Earth. Each event flooded at least 100,000 square kilometres, leaving behind distinct geological regions known as large igneous provinces (LIPs), such as India’s Deccan traps, formed when the dinosaurs went extinct (see map). “There is an amazing correlation between mass extinctions and LIPs,” says Andrew Kerr at the University of Cardiff, UK.

Now Matthew Jackson at Boston University, and colleagues, claim to have found evidence that LIPs are fed by 4.5-billion-year-old stores of mantle.

Most of the mantle has been modified by plate tectonics since then (see “Diamonds and the birth of plate tectonics”). But last year Jackson’s team found that 62-million-year-old basalts from the North Atlantic LIP contain isotopes of helium, hafnium and lead in ratios that reflect the chemistry of early Earth’s mantle.

They have now found similar lead isotope ratios in other LIP rocks, and say that LIPs in general may have an ancient source. Their analysis suggests this mantle contains an abundance of radioactive, heat-producing elements, making it unusually hot and potentially more likely to form the large quantities of lava needed to create LIPs (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature10326).

The ancient stores might still exist. Studies to probe the mantle’s structure with seismic waves have revealed two unusual areas some 2800 kilometres down, beneath Africa and the Pacific Ocean. Trond Torsvik of the University of Oslo, Norway, and colleagues recently showed that most LIPs formed while one of these two areas lay directly beneath them.

“It’s an interesting idea – that a giant blob of hot magma might burp from near Earth’s core every now and then, causing havoc for life,” says Gerta Keller at Princeton University, but adds more work is needed to support the hypothesis.

Kerr agrees: “This will be controversial – it flies in the face of much of the research from the last 30 years.” Conventional wisdom, he points out, suggests LIPs have a more prosaic source – young mantle formed when oceanic crust returns to the mantle through subduction.

But Torsvik is enthused. Having spent 10 years collecting evidence that his two mantle blobs have been stable for at least 540 million years, the idea that they contain primordial mantle is “like music to my ears”, he says.

Diamonds and the birth of plate tectonics

The inside of our planet is a magma-churning power house. As a result, very little remains from the millennia just after Earth formed. The two blobs of ancient magma that may be responsible for several mass extinctions are an exception.

Some diamonds, it turns out, may also serve as time capsules. A new study suggests that locked inside them is the secret of when the continents formed.

We knew that plate tectonics have been pushing new bits of crust into existence and engulfing old chunks back into the mantle for hundreds of millions of years. What we didn’t know is when it all started. Stephen Richardson at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Steven Shirey of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC collected thousands of ancient diamonds from around the world. Gems considered to be flawed by the jewellery industry can contain tiny clumps of minerals from the rocks in which they formed. Some clumps are made of peridotite, others of the rarer eclogite, which is only formed when volcanic rocks from the surface are forced deep into the mantle and crushed in the immense pressure and heat there. To get eclogite, you need plate tectonics.

When Richardson and Shirey dated the mineral clumps, they found that the peridotite ranged from 2 to 3.5 billion years old, but the oldest eclogite was 3 billion years old (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1206275). This, say the researchers, proves that plate tectonics cannot have been active before then. Michael Marshall

Valle Grande, New Mexico, reveals evidence of ancient megadrought

Valle Grande, New Mexico : Image of the Day.

Valle Grande, New Mexico

acquired May 25, 2011 download large image (5 MB, JPEG)
acquired May 25, 2011 download GeoTIFF file (41 MB, TIFF)

The American Southwest is prone to drought, and the summer of 2011 proved no exception, when a severe drought extended from Arizona to Florida. But a sediment core from New Mexico suggests that today’s droughts—even the 1930s Dust Bowl—are fleeting events compared to conditions of the ancient past. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, some droughts could persist for centuries. Researchers find one ancient period of warm, dry conditions especially intriguing because it was, in many ways, similar to conditions on Earth during the last 10,000 years.

Clues about this ancient period are preserved in a dry lakebed in New Mexico named Valle Grande. On May 25, 2011, the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this natural-color image of the lakebed. It is an unevenly shaped expanse of beige grassland situated inside the larger Valles Caldera.

Researchers extracted a 260-foot (80-meter) sediment core from this lakebed in 2004, and published their analysis in 2011. Ancient lake muds in the core document the region’s climate between 360,000 and 550,000 years ago. During that time, glaciers advanced over North America in recurring ice ages, and conditions warmed in interglacial periods. The core includes sediments from two warm interglacials.

One interglacial covered in the sediment core that particularly interested the research team is known as Marine Isotope Stage 11 (MIS 11), which occurred around 400,000 years ago. Our planet’s orbit around the Sun has varied over geologic time, but the 50,000-year period comprising MIS 11 experienced an orbital configuration similar to that of the last 10,000 years and, consequently, the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth was similar.

During MIS 11, the researchers found, the climate of the American Southwest underwent a series of changes. As ice-age conditions gave way to warming, plant life thrived in a seasonally wet climate. But the warming continued, withering grasses and shrubs, and drying out lakes. Mud cracks in the sediment core illustrate the aridity. The drought documented by the sediment core lasted thousands of years—a megadrought.

The sediment core suggests that the megadrought occurring in MIS 11 not only began abruptly, but also ended abruptly, replaced by cooler, wetter conditions. As geologists explain, we live in an interglacial today; Earth’s most recent ice age ended only about 10,000 years ago. The similarity of the Earth’s orbital configuration between MIS 11 and now suggests that, as happened hundreds of thousands of years ago, the Southwest might eventually experience cool, wet conditions again. Such a transition could be derailed, however, by warming caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.

  1. References

  2. Fawcett, P.J., Werne, J.P., Anderson, R.S., Heikoop, J.M., Brown, E.T., Berke, M.A., Smith, S.J., Goff, F., Donohoo-Hurley, L., Cisneros-Dozal, L.M., Schouten, S., Sinninghe Damste, J.S., Huang, Y., Toney, J., Fessenden, J., WoldeGabriel, G., Atudorei, V., Geissman, J.W., Allen, C.D. (2011). Extended megadroughts in the southwestern United States during Pleistocene interglacials. Nature, 470, 518–521.
  3. Rickman, J.E. (2011, February 28). Dry lake reveals evidence of southwestern “megadroughts.” Los Alamos National Laboratory. Accessed July 18, 2011.
  4. U.S. Drought Monitor. (2011, July 14). Conditions for July 12, 2011. (PDF file) University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Accessed July 16, 2011.
  5. University of California Museum of Paleontology. The Pleistocene. Accessed July 18, 2011.
  6. Williams, J. (2011). Climate change: Old droughts in New Mexico. Nature, 470, 473–474.

NASA image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 Team. Caption by Michon Scott.

Instrument: 
EO-1 – ALI

Proved: Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change!

Storm Warnings: Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change: Scientific American.

More violent and frequent storms, once merely a prediction of climate models, are now a matter of observation. Part one of a three-part series

souris-river-flood-minot-north-dakota DROWNING: The Souris River overflowed levees in Minot, N.D., as seen here on June 23. Image: Patrick Moes/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In North Dakota the waters kept rising. Swollen by more than a month of record rains in Saskatchewan, the Souris River topped its all time record high, set back in 1881. The floodwaters poured into Minot, North Dakota’s fourth-largest city, and spread across thousands of acres of farms and forests. More than 12,000 people were forced to evacuate. Many lost their homes to the floodwaters.

Yet the disaster unfolding in North Dakota might be bringing even bigger headlines if such extreme events hadn’t suddenly seemed more common. In this year alone massive blizzards have struck the U.S. Northeast, tornadoes have ripped through the nation, mighty rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri have flowed over their banks, and floodwaters have covered huge swaths of Australia as well as displaced more than five million people in China and devastated Colombia. And this year’s natural disasters follow on the heels of a staggering litany of extreme weather in 2010, from record floods in Nashville, Tenn., and Pakistan, to Russia’s crippling heat wave.

These patterns have caught the attention of scientists at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They’ve been following the recent deluges’ stunning radar pictures and growing rainfall totals with concern and intense interest. Normally, floods of the magnitude now being seen in North Dakota and elsewhere around the world are expected to happen only once in 100 years. But one of the predictions of climate change models is that extreme weather—floods, heat waves, droughts, even blizzards—will become far more common. “Big rain events and higher overnight lows are two things we would expect with [a] warming world,” says Deke Arndt, chief of the center’s Climate Monitoring Branch. Arndt’s group had already documented a stunning rise in overnight low temperatures across the U.S. So are the floods and spate of other recent extreme events also examples of predictions turned into cold, hard reality?

Increasingly, the answer is yes. Scientists used to say, cautiously, that extreme weather events were “consistent” with the predictions of climate change. No more. “Now we can make the statement that particular events would not have happened the same way without global warming,” says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

That’s a profound change—the difference between predicting something and actually seeing it happen. The reason is simple: The signal of climate change is emerging from the “noise”—the huge amount of natural variability in weather.

Extreme signals

There are two key lines of evidence. First, it’s not just that we’ve become more aware of disasters like North Dakota or last year’s Nashville flood, which caused $13 billion in damage, or the massive 2010 summer monsoon in Pakistan that killed 1,500 people and left 20 million more homeless. The data show that the number of such events is rising. Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies, has compiled the world’s most comprehensive database of natural disasters, reaching all the way back to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Researchers at the company, which obviously has a keen financial interest in trends that increase insurance risks, add 700 to 1,000 natural catastrophes to the database each year, explains Mark Bove, senior research meteorologist in Munich Re’s catastrophe risk management office in Princeton, N.J. The data indicate a small increase in geologic events like earthquakes since 1980 because of better reporting. But the increase in the number of climate disasters is far larger. “Our figures indicate a trend towards an increase in extreme weather events that can only be fully explained by climate change,” says Peter Höppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Center: “It’s as if the weather machine had changed up a gear.”

The second line of evidence comes from a nascent branch of science called climate attribution. The idea is to examine individual events like a detective investigating a crime, searching for telltale fingerprints of climate change. Those fingerprints are showing up—in the autumn floods of 2000 in England and Wales that were the worst on record, in the 2003 European heat wave that caused 14,000 deaths in France, in Hurricane Katrina—and, yes, probably even in Nashville. This doesn’t mean that the storms or hot spells wouldn’t have happened at all without climate change, but as scientists like Trenberth say, they wouldn’t have been as severe if humankind hadn’t already altered the planet’s climate.This new science is still controversial. There’s an active debate among researchers about whether the Russian heat wave bears the characteristic signature of climate change or whether it was just natural variability, for instance. Some scientists worry that trying to attribute individual events to climate change is counterproductive in the larger political debate, because it’s so easy to dismiss the claim by saying that the planet has always experienced extreme weather. And some researchers who privately are convinced of the link are reluctant to say so publicly, because global warming has become such a target of many in Congress.

But the evidence is growing for a link between the emissions of modern civilization and extreme weather events. And that has the potential to profoundly alter the perception of the threats posed by climate change. No longer is global warming an abstract concept, affecting faraway species, distant lands or generations far in the future. Instead, climate change becomes personal. Its hand can be seen in the corn crop of a Maryland farmer ruined when soaring temperatures shut down pollination or the $13 billion in damage in Nashville, with the Grand Ole Opry flooded and sodden homes reeking of rot. “All of a sudden we’re not talking about polar bears or the Maldives any more,” says Nashville-based author and environmental journalist Amanda  Little. “Climate change translates into mold on my baby’s crib. We’re talking about homes and schools and churches and all the places that got hit.”

Drenched in Nashville
Indeed, the record floods in Nashville in May 2010 shows how quickly extreme weather can turn ordinary life into a nightmare. The weekend began innocuously. The forecast was a 50 percent chance of rain. Musician Eric Normand and his wife Kelly were grateful that the weather event they feared, a tornado, wasn’t anticipated. Eric’s Saturday concert in a town south of Nashville should go off without a hitch, he figured.

He was wrong. On Saturday, it rained—and rained. “It was a different kind of rain than any I had experienced in my whole life,” says Nashville resident Rich Hays. Imagine the torrent from an intense summer thunderstorm, the sort of deluge that prompts you to duck under an underpass for a few minutes until the rain stops and it’s safe to go on, Little says. It was like that, she recalls—except that on this weekend in May 2010 it didn’t stop. Riding in the bus with his fellow musicians, Normand “looked through a window at a rain-soaked canopy of green and gray,” he wrote later. Scores of cars were underwater on the roads they had just traveled. A short 14-hour bus gig turned out to be “one of the most stressful and terrifying we had ever experienced,” Normand says.

And still it rained—more than 13 inches (33 centimeters) that weekend. The water rose in Little’s basement—one foot, two feet, three feet (one meter) deep. “You get this panicky feeling that things are out of control,” she says. Over at Hays’s home, fissures appeared in the basement floor, and streams of water turned into a “full-on river,” Hays recalls. Then in the middle of night, “I heard this massive crack, almost like an explosion,” he says. The force of the water had fractured the house’s concrete foundation. He and his wife spent the rest of the night in fear that the house might collapse.

Sunday morning, Normand went out in the deluge to ask his neighbor if he knew when the power might go back on—it was then he realized that his normal world had vanished. A small creek at the bottom of the hill was now a lake one-half mile (0.8 kilometer) wide, submerging homes almost up to their second stories. “My first reaction was disbelief,” Normand says. He and his family were trapped, without power and surrounded by flooded roads. “We were just freaked out,” he recalls.

And all across the flooded city the scenes were surreal, almost hallucinatory, Little says. “There were absurdities heaped upon absurdities. Churches lifted off foundations and floating down streets. Cars floating in a herd down highways.” In her own basement her family’s belongings bobbed like debris in a pond.

By time the deluge ended, more than 13 inches (33 centimeters) of rain had fallen, as recorded at Nashville’s airport. The toll: 31 people dead, more than $3 billion in damage—and an end to the cherished perception that Nashville was safe from major weather disasters. “A community that had never been vulnerable to this incredible force of nature was literally taken by storm,” Little says.

But can the Nashville deluge, the North Dakota floods and the many other extreme weather events around the world be connected with the greenhouse gases that humans have spewed into the atmosphere? Increasingly the answer seems to be yes. Whereas it will never be possible to say that any particular event was caused by climate change, new science is teasing out both the contributions that it makes to individual events—and the increase in the odds of extreme weather occurring as a result of climate change.

Tomorrow: Part 2, “The Science of Extreme Weather

Reporting for this story was funded by Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

John Carey is a freelance science writer and editor. For two decades prior to 2010 he was a senior correspondent for Business Week magazine, covering a range of topics including energy and global warming and cholesterol-lowering drugs and the human genome. Previously, he was an editor at The Scientist and a reporter at Newsweek. His stories have won awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Wistar Institute and a number of other organizations. He was also a National Magazine Award finalist.

Eco-ruin 'felled early society'

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Eco-ruin ‘felled early society’.

One of Western Europe’s earliest known urban societies may have sown the seeds of its own downfall, a study suggests.

Mystery surrounded the fall of the Bronze Age Argaric people in south-east Spain – Europe’s driest area.

Data suggests the early civilisation exhausted precious natural resources, helping bring about its own ruin.

The study provides early evidence for cultural collapse caused – at least in part – by humans meddling with the environment, say researchers.

Archaeologists are convinced that something happened in the ecological structure of the area just prior to the collapse of the Argaric culture
Jose Carrion, University of Murcia

It could also provide lessons for modern populations living in water-stressed regions.

The findings were based on pollen preserved in a peat deposit located in the mountains of eastern Andalucia, Spain.

The researchers drilled a sediment core from the Canada del Gitano basin high up in Andalucia’s Sierra de Baza region.

Canada del Gitano. Image: Jose Carrion.

Sediment cores were drilled from peat deposits

By studying the abundances of different pollen types – along with other indicators – preserved in sedimentary deposits, researchers can reconstruct what kind of vegetation covered the area in ancient times.

They can compile a pollen sequence, which shows how vegetation changed over thousands of years. This can give them clues to how human settlement and climate affected ecosystems.

Copper axe. Image: Jose Carrion.

Copper objects like this axe were common until the Argaric era

The Argaric culture emerged in south-eastern Spain 4,300 years ago. This civilisation, which inhabited small fortified towns, was one of the first in Western Europe to adopt bronze working.

But about 3,600 years ago, the culture mysteriously vanished from the archaeological record.

“Archaeologists are convinced that something happened in the ecological structure of the area just prior to the collapse of the Argaric culture,” said Jose Carrion, from the University of Murcia, Spain.

“But we previously lacked a high-resolution record to support this.”

Environmental change

Before the appearance of the Argaric civilisation, the slopes of Sierra de Baza were covered with a diverse forest dominated by deciduous oaks and other broad-leaved trees.

High mountain site in the Sierra de Baza. Image: Jose Carrion.

The area’s tree cover was rapidly removed

But about 4,200 years ago – just after this civilisation emerges – significant amounts of charcoal appear in the pollen sequence. According to the study’s authors, this is a sign Bronze Age people were setting fires to clear the forests for mining activities and grazing.

Not long afterwards, about 3,900 years ago, the diverse forest ecosystem disappears, to be replaced by monotonous and fire-prone Mediterranean scrub.

What astonished the researchers was the speed of this change. This ecological transformation is very abrupt, appearing to have taken place in little more than a decade.

About 300 years after this ecological transformation, the Argaric civilisation disappeared.

Climatic effect

Map (BBC)

Professor Carrion said the term “ecocide” was too strong to apply in this case. Climate must also have played a part, he explained.

There is evidence conditions were becoming progressively arid from about 5,500 years ago onwards. This is indicated by a broad reduction in forest cover, the appearance of plants adapted to dry conditions and a drop in lake levels.

But Jose Carrion added: “The climatic influence began millennia prior to the appearance of the Argaric culture.

“It’s not critical to the change in the landscape we see about 3,900-3,800 years ago. What appears to be critical is the evidence of burning, which in our opinion is man-made.”

Pine trees in the Sierra de Baza. Image: Jose Carrion.

Some isolated patches of pine forest still remain today

The degradation of soils and vegetation could have caused the collapse of agriculture and pastoralism, the foundation of the Argaric economy.

This would have led to massive depopulation of the area.

The findings were outlined at the recent Climate and Humans conference in Murcia, Spain, and appear in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Roman rise and fall 'recorded in trees'

BBC News – Roman rise and fall ‘recorded in trees’.

An extensive study of tree growth rings says there could be a link between the rise and fall of past civilisations and sudden shifts in Europe’s climate.

A team of researchers based their findings on data from 9,000 wooden artifacts from the past 2,500 years.

They found that periods of warm, wet summers coincided with prosperity, while political turmoil occurred during times of climate instability.

The findings have been published online by the journal Science.

“Looking back on 2,500 years, there are examples where climate change impacted human history,” co-author Ulf Buntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape, told the Science website.

Ring record

The team capitalised on a system used to date material unearthed during excavations.

Start Quote

Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire”

End Quote Ulf Buntgen

“Archaeologists have developed oak ring width chronologies from Central Europe that cover nearly the entire Holocene and have used them for the purpose of dating artefacts, historical buildings, antique artwork and furniture,” they wrote.

“Chronologies of living and relict oaks may reflect distinct patterns of summer precipitation and drought.”

The team looked at how weather over the past couple of centuries affected living trees’ growth rings.

During good growing seasons, when water and nutrients are in plentiful supply, trees form broad rings, with their boundaries relatively far apart.

But in unfavourable conditions, such as drought, the rings grow in much tighter formation.

The researchers then used this data to reconstruct annual weather patterns from the growth rings preserved in the artefacts.

Once they had developed a chronology stretching back over the past 2,500 years, they identified a link with prosperity levels in past societies, such as the Roman Empire.

“Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period,” the team reported.

“Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces of Gaul.”

Dr Buntgen explained: “We were aware of these super-big data sets, and we brought them together and analyzed them in a new way to get the climate signal.

“If you have enough wood, the dating is secure. You just need a lot of material and a lot of rings.”