Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Climate change?

The weather has eased for now, although it will be weeks and months before all the water is back where it's supposed to be and repairs to homes and businesses have been carried out.

We have had storms and floods before, of course. The most serious in living memory were those of 1953. The most destructive was probably the Great Storm of 1703, when, in addition to loss of life and damage to property on land, the Royal Navy lost thirteen ships and almost two thousand officers and men.

The Somerset Levels, the Fens,  Romney Marsh,  the Thames side lands of Kent and Essex, are all on land which has been reclaimed, either by natural processes or the efforts of man. As such they have always been susceptible to flooding. In the thirteenth century repeated storms broke through the sea defences in Romney Marsh and swept away the town of Winchelsea. The present town was founded on  a new site by Edward I about 1290.

 A Great Breach was opened on the Thames shore near Woolwich in 1531. This was not repaired until the seventeenth century.

Even in normal years low lying land might be under water for much of the winter, resulting in rich pasture  in spring.

Landlords had to spend heavily on flood defences. In 1293-94 the Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, landlords in Romney Marsh, spent over £100 on repairing and improving defences.

The most sustained period of bad weather in English history was probably that which began in 1314-15 and continued for about ten years. Following a poor harvest in 1314, a very wet winter and spring prevented ploughing and sowing in 1315. Such crops as were planted rotted in the fields due to continuing wet weather. The same happened in 1316. In some places grain prices were four or five times what they normally were - at a time when a very high proportion of labouring families' incomes was spent on bread. Alternate floods and drought caused bad harvests up to 1327, while cattle disease wiped out large numbers of cattle, including the oxen needed for ploughing.

These conditions affected the whole of western Europe. It is estimated that ten to fifteen per cent of the population may have died of hunger, with the impact being greater in some areas than others.

The 1310s are identified as the beginning of the Little Ice Age, which by some reckonings continued to the late nineteenth century.  Perhaps now, seven hundred years later, we are seeing the start of another.

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