October 29, 2013, by Georgina

On extremes….

The St Jude storm has once again brought climate extremes to the fore in the UK press. I thought it may be timely to use this as an opportunity to provide a bit of context for our project. My point of departure in all this is the difficulty we have in defining what extreme actually means. For a start, extreme weather events are as much social texts as material occurrences – as well as being biophysical events, they are also socially and culturally constructed and interpreted.

Constructing extremes

Geographical context has a significant impact on how individuals and communities experience the natural world. Different regional circumstances, particular physical conditions, an area’s social and economic activities and embedded cultural knowledges, norms, values, practices and infrastructures all affect community experiences, reactions and responses to extreme weather.

The impact of extreme weather may even vary between individuals, depending on a multitude of factors, which are in turn informed by cultural and historical experiences. The way in which an extreme event is experienced and perceived determines whether it becomes inscribed into the memory of a community or an individual in the form of oral history, ideology, custom, behaviour, narrative, artefact, technological and physical adaptation. Moreover, these different forms of remembering and recording the past represent central media through which information on past events is curated, recycled and transmitted across generations.

The construction of regionally specific climatic histories and historical extreme weather events, and investigations of the memories of and social responses to these events are, therefore, crucial for understanding the nature of the events that might take place in the future. These histories will also enable us to assess how different communities in different contexts might be affected by, might comprehend and respond to future events as both climate and communities change.


Sources for reconstruction

Although official meteorological observations rarely extend back beyond the mid-nineteenth century, a wide variety of historical documents can be used for the reconstruction of historical climate variability, including extreme events, and for the exploration of their socio-economic implications and repercussions. Climate and weather have long been the subjects of private narratives, diaries, chronicles and sermons dating back to the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A very diverse group of people were involved in observing and recording weather in this period, either in networks or independently, including gentlemen savants, physicians, sea captains, clergy naturalists, university professors and travellers.

In the earliest records, emphasis was often placed on local weather and specifically on the unusual or extreme event that disrupted everyday life. From the mid to late eighteenth century, more quotidian recording practices were adopted, whereby people collated daily weather reports of their local weather, often using meteorological instruments that generated numerical records. Extreme events continued to be viewed as noteworthy and as a result many diaries contain detailed descriptions of such events and their implications. From the 1700s, local, regional and national newspapers were increasingly available, which now represent an important source of high-resolution climate and weather data. Newspaper records can also provide detailed accounts of the ramifications and implications of unusual or extreme events. Alongside these direct sources of information, there are other historical documentary sources, including travel accounts, legal documents, crop and tax records, maps, paintings, etchings, plans and images. These sources contain useful descriptions and depictions of anomalous and extreme events and reveal how people may have responded to these events through physical adaptations and modifications to the built environment, including buildings, parks and gardens. In addition to information on the timing and intensity of extreme events, all such sources offer an opportunity to explore relative societal vulnerability and resilience to climatic variability through the collection of empirical knowledge from past experience in the form of memory, or social, cultural or physical adaptation.

But of course the history of extremes can also be monitored through memory, behaviour and many folk and rural genres are based on familiarity with long-term climate variability, or “weather wising”. Local weather can also become inscribed into everyday practices, including farming, gardening and a variety of domestic and recreation pursuits, and also become embedded in the design and construction of vernacular buildings, while extreme events that resulted in trauma, such as flood events, and the epigraphic records of such events, can also become a focus of community memorial and mourning.

The recency effect

According to what cognitive psychologist, Trevor Harley, refers to as the ‘recency effect’, dramatic events such as the kind of severe winters we are interested in our Snow Scenes project, tend to seize popular attention more than ‘normal’ conditions and memories thus tend to be distorted with respect to extreme events. Tapping into local weather memories through oral history work can thus yield very useful information on past extreme events, and the impacts and responses they engendered, as well as revealing how people are conceptualising and contextualising the risks of any future events.

This, I suppose represents the overall justification for our project but I will end with encouragement to get in touch with us – we are very keen to hear from you with your own memories and experiences.

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