The Salem Witch Trials … Bubonic Plague … The composition of Amazing Grace … The Challenger disaster … The Hindenburg … Washington crossing the Delaware … The demise of Napoleon’s army … Did you know these and other important historical events were influenced, if not incited, by the weather? Sudden freezes, hurricanes, high winds, snowstorms and more are inadvertently responsible for resurfacing roads (which led to a seemingly unattainable victory), redefining attitudes, reforming sinners, and redirecting military maneuvers. In short, it may be said that weather has rearranged history.
The Bubonic Plague: Said to have begun in the year 541, the first bubonic plague swept through the Roman Empire. Precipitated by a weather-related phenomenon 11 years earlier where the sun’s heat had been mitigated for some time, a resulting drought in Africa had killed crops and upset the ecosystem as small food chain predators died without grain, and still larger ones perished without the others. A flooding period of rain eventually followed, reviving the small rodent population though not larger predators. Subsequently Africa was inundated with mice and gerbils which carried the plague, transporting it to Europe aboard merchant ships.
Washington’s Delaware Crossing: During the American Revolution, a bitter nor’easter turned Washington’s 300-yard crossing of the Delaware into a nine-hour feat with two men freezing to death in the process. But because of the storm’s frigid temperatures, typically muddy roads on the other side had frozen solid to facilitate the unanticipated swift trundling of guns. An ensuing nighttime attack on German mercenaries hired by the British, fast asleep following a reported lavish holiday dinner with ample drink, resulted in 1,000 prisoners who unwittingly exchanged warm blankets for cold bayonets. Had Washington arrived hours later, the results would not have been the same.
The Spanish Armada: In 1588, the defeat of the Spanish Armada–called “one of the most decisive battles in Western history”–was attributed to uncooperative winds at sea.
The Salem Witch Trials: Historians studying European and Salem witch trials seem to have found a correlation between peaks of prosecution and sequences of colder weather between 1560-74, 1583-89, 1623-30, and 1678-98, known as The Little Ice Age. According to records, the climate became more temperate and forgiving from 1730-on, as did attitudes.
Amazing Grace: Celebrated for composing the lyrics to Amazing Grace, British slave trade facilitator John Newton met his match in a violent storm at sea. Bargaining for his life with the Lord, Newton promised to devote himself to service if he survived. He came through his ordeal and through years of study and persistent application, eventually became a priest in the Church of England. While renouncing the slave trade took time, when he finally did Newton became an abolitionist, aiding his friend Wilber Wilberforce, leader of the Parliamentary campaign to abolish slavery.
Napoleon’s Raid on Russia: In 1812, Napoleon’s 600,000-strong army marched into Russia, capturing Moscow. Purloining jewels, furs, and other spoils of war for their wives, they left during a typical Russian winter as the temperature plunged to below zero. In one 24-hour period, 50,000 horses were said to freeze to death, and soldiers succumbed to frostbite and starvation. This was the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s forces, as only 150,000 made it home.
The Hindenburg: The 1937 crash of the Hindenburg at New Jersey’s Lakehurst Naval air station, originally attributed to a hydrogen explosion, in more recent years has been linked to severe weather in the area including thunderstorms. A skin made of iron oxide coated with cellulose acetate was designed to protect it from moisture. Analysis has said the highly flammable material was tantamount to rocket fuel, however. Additionally, the paint that covered the acetate was stiffened with highly combustible powdered aluminum. Circling for an hour due to the weather, the Hindenburg passed through rain clouds, negatively charging it. When the crew dropped the wet lines to dock, they acted as a ground. When the metal frame of the ship earthed its charge, the skin heated up and the highly flammable coating ignited. Within 10 seconds most of the ship was ablaze and by the time 34 seconds had passed, the Hindenburg was a burning mass. Its spectacular demise brought about an end to travel and a strong projected future for airships, which had also been used as bombers in World War I.
D-Day: In 1944, D-Day was rescheduled from June 5 to the following day because Britain’s national weather service, the United Kingdom Meteorological Office, had predicted unfavorable wind direction and threatening clouds which could have hampered the invasion.
Kublai Khan: In the 13th century, Mongolian empire leader Kublai Khan had reportedly targeted Japan. Two monsoons ran interference with his battle plan. Grateful Shinto priests called the storms “kamikaze,” or divine wind.
The Atom Bomb: On August 6, 1945, a mostly cloudless sky precipitated a thumbs-up to drop the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. Two days later, the second target, Kokura, was spared due to cloud cover, the bomb redirected to Nagasaki.
Flight at Kittyhawk: On December 8, 1903, aviation pioneer Samuel P. Langley attempted to become the first man to demonstrate a heavier-than-air aircraft. The press, military observers, and members of Congress lined the shore to witness the historic event. The machine was placed on a houseboat, pulled into the Potomac and faced directly into the wind. At 4:45 a pilot named Charles Manley signaled for crewmen to release restraining pins so the plane would be thrown into the wind by a spring-driven catapult. But just as the pin was pulled, a heavy gust of wind sent the platform lurching. The aerodrome’s rear wings collapsed and it made a spectacular nosedive into the water. This was probably one reason why not a single reporter showed up to watch the Wright brothers successfully fly the world’s first airplane, the Flyer, nine days later.