Weather History: Story Ideas and Research Sources

B.J. SEDLOCK

Sunrise. Photo by Lebewesen at Morguefile.com

 

Are you a stickler for research, wanting to get even the weather correct for the time period in your novel? There are quite a few weather history books (and some websites) available, some of which span many centuries. Browsing through them might spark story ideas as well. Your local library should be able to get them for you via interlibrary loan, if they are no longer in print.

 

Following the weather listings is a section on food history books, published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Weather history books

THE LONG SUMMER: HOW CLIMATE CHANGED CIVILIZATION (Brian Fagan. Basic Books, 2004)

Fagan, an anthropologist, writes about the effect of climate on civilization, from the Ice Age through 1200, with an epilogue on modern times. If you need to know what the climate was like in ancient and early medieval times and how it would affect your characters, this would be a good place to start. Fagan says, “I argue that human relationships to the natural environment and short-term climatic change have always been in flux. To ignore climate is to neglect one of the dynamic backdrops of the human experience.”

Learn how volcanoes erupting in Iceland affected the whole of Europe in ancient times. Read the chapter on the Sahara to find out how desert cattle were raised during a period of greater rainfall. Chapter 7 discusses how the droughts in Sumeria contributed to the growth of cities.

THE LITTLE ICE AGE: HOW CLIMATE MADE HISTORY 1300-1850 (Brian Fagan. Basic Books, 2000)

Fagan discusses climate and civilization in northern Europe in more modern centuries in this volume. It is “a narrative history of climatic shifts during the past ten centuries and some of the ways in which people in Europe adapted to them.” If the period you write about is the Viking era, Fagan discusses climate’s effect on Viking explorations. Are your novels set in the Middle Ages?  Fagan writes in chapter two about the famines of the 1300s. Late Medieval fishermen learn to cope with increased ocean storms. In the 1690s, the landowner of Culbin in Scotland became a pauper overnight when a storm blew 30 meters of sand to cover his farmland. If your book is set in Europe between 1300-1850, good story ideas are to be found here.

SNOW IN AMERICA (Bernard Mergen. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997)

Mergen examines snow in America through “ecology, history, literature, and art.” The chapter on recreation in the snow could give you story ideas, such as the rules for a snowball fight in 1880, the origins of winter carnivals, and the start of early ski resorts. Chapter 2 explores the effect of snow on new technology of railroads, and includes an anecdote about how people on a train stalled by snow for three days in the 1890s survived.

CLIMATOLOGICAL HISTORY OF OHIO (William H. Alexander.  Ohio State University, 1923)

If you want a really micro level of correctness for your weather in a particular month and location, books like this one could help. For example, it contains a section on the county I live in, listing monthly average temperatures, rainfall and snowfall between 1893 and 1912. Counties which were settled earlier have records that extend back farther. Maps and charts list dates for the last killing frost in a particular location within Ohio, and locations where rain fell in excess of four inches in 24 hours. You can find books like this for other U.S. states or countries by using an online library catalog and doing a subject search on “[name of state/country] climate.” Examples I found doing this: The Story of the British and their Weather by Patrick Nobbs, and The Pennsylvania Weather Book by Ben Gelber.

Tornado. Photo by npclark2k at Morguefile.com

THE DIVINE WIND: THE HISTORY AND SCIENCE OF HURRICANES (Kerry Emanuel. Oxford University Press, 2005)

Emanuel “portray[s] the hurricane as it is seen from the perspectives of history, art and science.” Chapters alternate between the science of hurricanes and profiles of major storms, such as the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the storm that hit Pakistan in 1970, and 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. The chapter on Galveston’s storm discusses the U.S. Weather Bureau’s reluctance to believe Cuban forecasters and subsequent forecasting blunders. Another chapter discusses the results of two Pacific typhoons in 1944 and 1945 that killed nearly 800 men in the U.S. naval fleet.

Weather history websites:

U.S. DAILY WEATHER MAPS

This website from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers historical weather information for the United States from 1871 to the present. So if you want to be sure you got the weather right for a particular day/week in a particular location in your novel, you can call up a map of the U.S. showing weather data for that period. One drawback to using this site is that it offers djvu files, which requires a (free) download of a plugin to be able to view them. If you are setting a novel in Kansas on December 7, 1941, you can use this site to look up the weather in Kansas and the rest of the country on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked as it affects your characters. One map I found fascinating was from January 1978 when the worst blizzard in 100 years hit the Ohio Valley. Someone wrote in colored pencil on the top of the map, “The Great Ohio Valley Blizzard of 1978, lowest pressure in 100+ yr…,” and “Freak tornado at Quantico, Va. 5 hr. before this map.”

MET OFFICE UK CLIMATE HISTORICAL STATION DATA

This site is offered by the UK Met Office, and lets you choose a particular weather station from a map of the UK, click on it, and then click on “view historic station data”. Then you can view columns of figures of maximum and minimum temperatures, rainfall, and sunshine duration in a particular month and year. Some of the stations recorded data back into the 1800s, but others were not established until mid-20th century.

WEATHER UNDERGROUND HISTORICAL WEATHER

Rainbow. Photo by justcola at Morguefile.com

There’s no “about us” section of this part of Weather Underground’s website, so it’s hard to figure out the exact scope of WU’s historical coverage. Some spot checking revealed that coverage for U.S. cities is fairly detailed. A search for a particular date’s weather in Idaho Falls, Idaho in 1980, for example, gets you min and max temperatures, humidity and precipitation figures, wind speed, and a chart showing conditions hour by hour, including general conditions such as “partly cloudy” or “overcast.” Idaho Falls goes back to 1948; other cities go back further: Denver to 1944, and others, less far back: Cleveland, only to 1973. World cities I spot-checked are also covered, but less extensively: Edinburgh’s and Paris’s data only go back to 1996, and temperatures are in Fahrenheit only. This site would be worth a try if your novel is set in the mid-20th century or later.

 

Food history

The section about food history books can now be found as an addition to the Yes, We Have No Tomatoes: Or, Why Food History Matters in Historical Fiction article.

About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.


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