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An intimate history of extreme weather Georgina Endfield is a professor of environmental history at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental history, historical climatology, and human responses to unusual or extreme weather events.

Georgina appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss her study of extreme weather over the centuries, and how human insight can reveal the true impact of adverse weather conditions – and society’s evolving responses to climate challenges.

Cold snap! 5 insights from extreme weather history

  1. Meteorological records don’t tell the full story
    Although official records and registers chart formal measurements of things like rainfall, temperature and pressure, we can only gain a more rounded view of the history of weather through a wider pool of documents.

    Items such as letters and diaries, says Georgina, provide insights that are missed by records that focus purely on statistical details. “We’ve looked at a whole range of sources (where)… weather wasn’t the purpose at all. And that’s why it becomes really interesting… because that’s where you get the objective information that can tell us a whole range of different things.”
  2. Personal stories make for powerful reading
    In October 1875, Maria Nevel from a village called Fiskerton, Nottingham, wrote in her diary about a flood and how it affected her life. Seeing the local river waters rising and knowing she had about six hours until her house was flooded, she sent her children away to another village called Tuxford, further away from the river, and ordered her servants to cook a joint of beef. She also made sure everyone in her house got some sleep before the floodwaters arrived.

    Maria’s response was practical, calm, and showed the impact of her wealth. In contrast, records from the Hebrides paint a starker picture of people’s responses to extreme weather. “Kids were turning up to school with no shoes, despite there being two-and-a-half feet of snow,” says Georgina. “You realize the sort of scale of poverty, and the impact a bad winter could have on an everyday thing like getting to school.”
  3. Some weather events bring communities together
    The inherent power of a flood, and its indiscriminate ability to tear apart the lives of both rich and poor, appears to bring together communities across traditional class divides.

    Georgina’s research uncovered references in 1795, 1852 and 1875 – all years of severe flooding – where the flood brought about “a sense of community”.

    She says: “People who previously bickered, who maybe have differences in standing, (are) helping each other out. That certainly happens in many of the personalised accounts that we’ve got.”
  4. But the same doesn’t apply to extreme cold weather
    Unlike with floods, when temperatures plummet those with wealth are able to insulate themselves from the harshest weather. Perhaps this is why the same sense of community doesn’t appear.

    Georgina points to reports from the 1794-95 winter, onwards throughout the Napoleonic Wars, detailing the response to a lack of food. “There is a differential social vulnerability that emerges,” she observes. “So, the last resort is rioting and bread riots.”
  5. Today, technology is making us more vulnerable than ever
    As our centrally-heated houses and a relative abundance of food shield the majority of the UK population from the harsh weather, Georgina argues that we are actually becoming less resilient to bouts of even mild bad weather.

    She suggests we’ve forgotten how to deal with even small amounts of snow, and that large-scale extreme weather could cause serious problems in the future.

    “We’re fortunate… We’re not in the weather as much as we were in the past, so we’re less used to it. It probably makes us less adaptable in the long run, potentially more vulnerable.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

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