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.
Roy Sullivan was a ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, USA. He became famous for unwittingly shattering a rather unenviable world record. This newer, shorter, experimentaler podcast episode tells his story.
This piece was intended primarily as an audio experience, there is an adio player embedded in the episode page.
This is Damn Interesting.
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in April of 1942. He was struck by lightning. He was a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in the United States. A nasty looking thunderstorm rolled in while Roy was out patrolling one day, so he took shelter in one of the park’s brand new fire lookout towers. Unfortunately, this particular tower had not yet been outfitted with lightning rods, so it became a very attractive target for the lightning. With each lightning strike, Roy would later describe, sparks and fire flew around him. Roy quickly realized he had not selected the ideal shelter and he conducted himself accordingly. When he attempted to flee somewhere safer, however, he’d only taken a few steps outside of the tower when he heard a deafening clap and was blinded by a very bright light. When he regained consciousness, he found a long line of burns running all the way down down his right leg and a smoldering, smoking hole in his shoe with a little bit of blood drizzling out. The lightning had destroyed the big toe on his right foot. Roy Sullivan survived his brush with lightning and recovered, but it was not an experience he cared to repeat.
One of the most memorable moments in Roy Sullivan’s life occurred in July of 1969. He was struck by lightning. He was driving his truck along a mountain road when a bolt of lightning struck a copse of nearby trees. It arced in through the open truck window and struck Roy. He awoke some minutes later still in his truck, but his eyebrows, eyelashes, and most of his hair had burned away. During the time that he was unconscious his truck had coasted to a stop not too far from a sheer drop off.
On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel.
In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon—one of the largest to have been built at that time—toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. “Strindberg and Fraenkel!” Andrée cried, “Are you ready to get into the car?” They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the “Örnen,” the Swedish word for “Eagle.”
“Cut away everywhere!” Andrée commanded after clambering into the Eagle himself, and the ground crew slashed at the lines binding the balloon to the Earth. Hurrahs were offered as the immense, primitive airship pulled away from the wood-plank hangar and bobbed ponderously into the atmosphere. Their mission was to be the first humans to reach the North Pole, taking aerial photographs and scientific measurements along the way for future explorers. If all went according to plan they would then touch down in Siberia or Alaska after a few weeks’ flight, laden with information about the top of the world.
Onlookers watched for about an hour as the voluminous sphere shrank into the distance and disappeared into northerly mists. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel would not arrive on the other side of the planet as planned. But their journey was far from over.
Please give a warm welcome to our newest author Mr J A Macfarlane. Hip-hip...!
Engineers need to have faith in their designs, but not many would necessarily be confident enough to put their lives at risk just to prove it. It takes a great deal of faith to design a lighthouse for the most dangerous reef in the English Channel, especially when no-one has ever built a lighthouse on the open sea before. It takes rather more to actually build it. And one approaches the shores of hubris when one decides to visit said lighthouse with a massive gale on the way. But when Henry Winstanley, an 18th-century English eccentric, designed and constructed the world’s first open-sea lighthouse on a small and extraordinarily treacherous group of rocks fourteen miles out from Plymouth, he was so confident in his building that he blithely assured all doubters he would be willing to weather the strongest storm within its confines – a boast he had the chance to live up to when he found himself in his lighthouse as the most violent tempest in England’s history approached its shores.
On 10 January 1709, pioneering weather observer William Derham recorded an historic event outside his home near London. He examined his thermometer in the frigid morning air and jotted an entry into his meticulous meteorological log. The prior weeks had been typical for an English winter, but overnight an oppressive cold had lodged itself over the Kingdom. As far as Derham was aware, London had never experienced so few millimeters of mercury as it did that morning: -12º C.
The remarkable cold lingered in Europe for weeks. Lakes, rivers, and the sea froze over, and the soil solidified a meter deep. The cold cracked open trees, crushed the life out of livestock huddling in stables, and made travel a treacherous undertaking. It was the coldest winter in the past 500 years, and one of the coldest moments in a larger global phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age. Likely causes include volcanic activity, oceanic currents, and/or reforestation due to Black-Death-induced population decline. It is nearly certain, however, that it has something to do with the unusually low number of sunspots that appeared at that time, a phenomenon referred to as the Maunder minimum.
We now know that such solar minima correlate quite closely with colder-than-normal temperatures on Earth, but science has yet to ascertain exactly why. Solar maximums, on the other hand, have historically had little noteworthy impact on the Earth apart from extra-splendid auroral displays. But thanks to our modern, electrified, interconnected society these previously innocuous events could cause catastrophic economic and social damage in the coming decades.
A Schleicher ASK 21 glider is a craft of elegance and poise. Its slim wings, seductively curved cabin and tapering fuselage embody a balanced design that moulds modern materials into flowing aerodynamic lines. On the afternoon of 17 April 1999, one such beauty soared gracefully above countryside near Dunstable, England, with an instructor and a novice pilot on board. The student had been given the trial lesson as a 30th birthday present. Although large storm clouds loomed nearby, at 1608 hours conditions in the immediate vicinity were calm and the air was clear.
At 1609 hours a fearsome force suddenly and violently shredded large sections of the glider. The instructor later recalled a “very loud bang” and a distressingly “draughty” cockpit. Dazed and briefly unconscious, he realised that “something was seriously amiss… requiring unpleasant and decisive action.”
By the time he vacated the wreckage—noting on his way out that there was no need to eject the canopy, nor any canopy—his student had arrived at the same conclusion. Witnesses on the ground observed a bright flash and heard a loud crack, and craned their necks to see a ball of smoke and fine debris hanging in the space where the glider had been. Below this, the remnant of a fuselage plummeted earthwards at high speed, with larger sailplane fragments fluttering behind. Thankfully two open parachutes were among them, with deafened and soot-blackened aviators swinging underneath. They were the fortunate survivors of a curious and powerful phenomenon known as positive lightning.
In the summer of 1959, a pair of F-8 Crusader combat jets were on a routine flight to Beaufort, North Carolina with no particular designs on making history. The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the silver and orange fuselages as the US Marine Corps pilots flew high above the Carolina coast at near the speed of sound. The lead jet was piloted by 39-year-old Lt Col William Rankin, a veteran of both World War 2 and the Korean War. In another Crusader followed his wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan. The pilots were cruising at 47,000 feet to stay above a large, surly-looking column of cumulonimbus cloud which was amassing about a half mile below them, threatening to moisten the officers upon their arrival at the air field.
Mere minutes before they were scheduled to begin their descent towards Beaufort, William Rankin heard a decreasingly reassuring series of grinding sounds coming from his aircraft’s engine. The airframe shuddered, and most of the indicator needles on his array of cockpit instruments flopped into their fluorescent orange “something is horribly wrong” regions. The engine had stopped cold. As the unpowered aircraft dipped earthward, Lt Col Rankin switched on his Crusader’s emergency generator to electrify his radio. “Power failure,” Rankin transmitted matter-of-factly to Nolan. “May have to eject.”
Unable to restart his engine, and struggling to keep his craft from entering a near-supersonic nose dive, Rankin grasped the two emergency eject handles. He was mindful of his extreme altitude, and of the serious discomfort that would accompany the sudden decompression of an ejection; but although he lacked a pressure suit, he knew that his oxygen mask should keep him breathing in the rarefied atmosphere nine miles up. He was also wary of the ominous gray soup of a storm that lurked below; but having previously experienced a bail out amidst enemy fire in Korea, a bit of inclement weather didn’t seem all that off-putting. At approximately 6:00pm, Lt Col Rankin concluded that his aircraft was unrecoverable and pulled hard on his eject handles. An explosive charge propelled him from the cockpit into the atmosphere with sufficient force to rip his left glove from his hand, scattering his canopy, pilot seat, and other plane-related debris into the sky. Bill Rankin had spent a fair amount of time skydiving in his career—both premeditated and otherwise—but this particular dive would be unlike any that he or any living person had experienced before.