Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.
The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.
In 1744, a young geographer living in Spanish-colonial Peru with his wife and children decided the time had come to move the family back to his native France. Jean Godin des Odonais had come to Peru in 1735 as a part of a small scientific expedition and had ended up staying much longer than expected. He’d married a young woman from a local aristocratic family and now the couple had two children and a third on the way. But news from France eventually brought word of Godin’s father’s death, meaning that there was an inheritance to sort out. It was time to return.
Making travel arrangements from such a distance, however, was going to be a challenge. Perhaps, Godin reasoned, he and his family could travel to the colony of French Guiana at the other end of the Amazon River, then find places on a ship back to France. In order to establish whether this was plausible, Godin decided to travel ahead to French Guiana and make inquiries.
From its headwaters in Peru, the Amazon goes downhill. From this point, virtually everything for Jean and Isabel Godin did the same. Left behind, Isabel spent years waiting for word from her husband. Eventually, due to an improbable series of mishaps and misery, Isabel ended up stranded alone in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, hopelessly lost and so far into starvation that her chances of survival were vanishingly small.
It was early in the morning on the 1st of May 1832 in New York City. The ordinarily gentle horse-drawn traffic of the up-and-coming metropolis seemed a bit more dense than usual, and as the morning progressed the avenues and boulevards became increasingly crowded. At 9:00am, almost as if on cue, thousands of doors on thousands of buildings burst open to vomit humans, furniture, and other sundries out into the bright morning sun. Within moments the streets of New York were a jangling amorphous pandemonium.
English author Frances Trollope happened to be in New York City to witness this peculiar spectacle:
On the 1st of May the city of New York has the appearance of sending off a population flying from the plague, or of a town which had surrendered on condition of carrying away all their goods and chattels. Rich furniture and ragged furniture, carts, wagons, and drays, ropes, canvas, and straw, packers, porters, and draymen, white, yellow, and black, occupy the streets from east to west, from north to south, on this day.
All over New York, tenants along with their belongings abandoned their abodes to criss-cross the city in mass migration to fresh dwellings. This was Moving Day. Owing to a quirk in New York law, nearly all rental contracts expired every year on May 1st at 9:00 AM, resulting in the simultaneous relocation of a multitude of persons and property. For over a century, from colonial times until shortly after the Second World War, it was the custom for the city to spend every May 1st as a scarcely navigable morass of humans, carts, and livestock.
We here at Damn Interesting headquarters (i.e., my residence) have recently performed our own interpretation of Moving Day, having spent an exhausting morning, noon, and night shuttling furniture, appliances, and corrugated cardboard cubes from one structure to another. The preceding packing and subsequent reorganizing have unavoidably disrupted our normally abnormal posting schedule. Next week, however, our jangling amorphous pandemonium will be over, and we shall be back to posting new articles.
This piece is intended primarily for sonic consumption, but a transcript follows for those with podcast intolerance.
Transcript of audio:
It was the middle of a cool September night in Munich, Germany. The year was 1939. In an otherwise unoccupied auditorium, a man knelt on hands and knees chiseling a square hole into a large stone pillar. The lights were all turned out, but a small flashlight dimmed with a handkerchief provided a pallid puddle of light. The man had wrapped his chisel in cloth to quiet his hammer strikes. Whenever there was some unexpected sound, he froze. Whenever a truck rumbled past the building, he seized the opportunity to chisel more vigorously. It was exceedingly tedious and slow work. The man working there was a 36-year-old German handyman named Georg Elser. But “handyman” isn’t exactly the right word. In his three and a half decades he had cultivated many skills, including clock making, cabinet building, master carpentry, and stone quarrying. And the task at hand required all of his diverse expertise.
In April of 1938, representatives from the USSR approached the Finnish government and expressed a concern that Nazi Germany could attempt to invade Russia, and such an attack might come through parts of Finland. The Finns replied that they were officially neutral, but any Nazi incursion on Finland’s borders would be resisted. This did not mollify the Soviets. Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, was published thirteen years previous with specific note that the Nazis would need to invade the Soviet Union. The Red Army was determined to “advance to meet the enemy” and refused to accept promises from the smaller country. As negotiations continued, the Soviets tried to coax Finland into leasing or ceding some area to serve as a buffer to Leningrad. In November 1939, however, all negotiations ceased, and on 30 November 1939 the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland.
In the municipality of Rautjärvi near the Soviet/Finnish border, 34-year-old Simo Häyhä was a farmer and hunter leading a flagrantly unexciting life. Upon news of the hostilities, he gathered up food, plain white camouflage, and his iron-sighted SAKO M/28-30—a variant of the Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle—and went to defend his country. Before the four-month war ended, humble Häyhä would gain infamy among the Russian invaders, and come to be known as the “White Death.”
Staple though it is today, the lowly potato had a hard time reaching its preeminent status in Western cuisine. Perhaps its lengthy purgatory has something to do with the tale that when Sir Walter Raleigh gave some potatoes to Queen Elizabeth, her cooks tossed aside the roots and served up the boiled greens instead, causing a court-wide case of indigestion. Whether that’s the case or not—and there’s no evidence that Raleigh ever so much as set eyes on a potato—for decades Europeans would have nothing to do with the tuber. At best, it was found useful to feed the cattle. At worst, it was considered a leprosy-inducing invention of the devil.
This belief was particularly pernicious in the fair fields of France, a country at the time holding a quarter of Europe’s inhabitants despite its periodic decimation by epidemic and famine. By the beginning of the 17th century France’s population had reached twenty million and continued to rise. Clearly, a cheap, plentiful, and resilient crop was just what the nutritionist ordered, yet even in the face of the brutal demographic crises that popped up every ten to fifteen years over the next two centuries, each time lopping two or three million inhabitants off the non-existent voting rolls, the potato remained unpondered, unprized, and unplanted.
Clearly, the potato needed a champion. What it got was a pharmacist.
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Near the heart of Scotland lies a large morass known as Dullatur Bog. Water seeps from these moistened acres and coalesces into the headwaters of a river which meanders through the countryside for nearly 22 miles until its terminus in Glasgow. In the late 19th century this river adorned the landscape just outside of the laboratory of Sir William Thompson, renowned scientist and president of the Royal Society. The river must have made an impression on Thompson—when Queen Victoria granted him the title of Baron in 1892, he opted to adopt the river’s name as his own. Sir William Thompson was thenceforth known as Lord Kelvin.
Kelvin’s contributions to science were vast, but he is perhaps best known today for the temperature scale that bears his name. It is so named in honor of his discovery of the coldest possible temperature in our universe. Thompson had played a major role in developing the Laws of Thermodynamics, and in 1848 he used them to extrapolate that the coldest temperature any matter can become, regardless of the substance, is -273.15°C (-459.67°F). We now know this boundary as zero Kelvin.
Once this absolute zero temperature was decisively identified, prominent Victorian scientists commenced multiple independent efforts to build machines to explore this physical frontier. Their equipment was primitive, and the trappings were treacherous, but they pressed on nonetheless, dangers be damned. There was science to be done.
Alarming events were in store for Sicily at the beginning of the summer of 1831. On 28 June, small earthquakes rocked the western end of the island, and these continued occurring day after day. On 4 July, the unpleasant scent of sulfur spread through the town of Sciacca. On the 13th, the people of St. Domenico spotted smoke from far offshore. Normally, volcanic activity would be the obvious culprit, but these black plumes were out on the water. Maybe, the residents suggested to one another, a boat was on fire. The crew of a passing ship had other ideas: the captain noted that the water under the smoke was bubbling vigorously. He was convinced that what they were dealing with was a sea monster. But a second ship brought reports of masses of dead fish in the water, entirely undevoured.
This disturbance was, in fact, a volcano erupting from just under the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. By the 17th of July, a new island some 25 feet high had appeared off the coast of Sicily. And that was only the beginning. The volcano went on spewing lava over the course of the next week until the island was four times its original height and seven kilometers around, with two peaks and even two small lakes. The new island lay between Europe and Africa right where the Mediterranean narrowed, putting it in the middle of an ongoing flurry of nautical trade and military maneuvers. Several countries observed simultaneously that the infant rock would likely prove extremely valuable to whichever country owned it, and at least three of them raced to claim it. As it turned out, none of them would succeed.