October 10, 2014, by Lucy
Extreme weather events in focus: Aurora borealis
Aurora borealis from the UK
Following recent sightings of the aurora borealis from the UK, in this week’s blog I thought I would share some of the parallel appearances they have made in some archival materials that I’ve been looking at. In putting the post together I’ve been able to utilise the summary reporting tools that Richard has incorporated into the TEMPEST database (the place where we’re collecting all of the information on extreme weather events of the past) – thank you Richard!
Appearances in the archive
As is the case today, appearances of aurora borealis or the Northern Lights appear to have attracted the attention of weather observers for several hundred years. The earliest account I’ve collected so far refers to an appearance in 1715, although it is taken from a list of notable weather events compiled much later:
- 1715 – On the 6th March about 7 at night appeared a very strange & unusual sight in the North a little about the horizon which surprised many; several of the same nature (tho’ not so fierie in appearance) having been since seen, made these Aurora Borealis common & consequently not taken much notice of (Chronology of notable weather events, MC 64/11, Norfolk Record Office).
I mentioned another 18th century account in my previous blog on the diaries of Matthew Flinders:
- 21st February 1775– aurora borealis. In the evening we observed a remarkably splendid aurora borealis, extending a great way, and possessing uncommon and extensively waving motions towards the center. I remember to have seen one some years ago nearly similar to this – tho’ I think not quite as splendid, moving, and extensive, seeming as if the atmosphere was in violent lucid agitations or convulsions (Flinders 1, Lincolnshire Archives).
The lights are also mentioned in another diary at Lincolnshire Archives that I started to looked at last week , that of John Thistleton:
- 2nd March 1780 – cloudy & warm, wind SW, at night bright north lights
- 23rd September 1781 – wind high & cold at NW, s showery morn’g then mostly bright & very dry till night when there was great flashing of the north lights up to the zenith?
- 24th September 1781 – wind very high & cold at NW mostly bright sun, some hazy clouds in the afternoon with flying showers, great north lights & lightning at night in the E (MON 31/92).
And in rhyme from February 1939 in the diary of Eric Pochin:
Aurora flung her lights across the sky again
Upon the twenty fourth, but not so vividly
As last year.[…] (10D70/1, Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Archives)
Individuals keeping meteorological registers also often note sightings, although they are less descriptive than the diary accounts. Three feature in the register of Charles Hastings at Worcester:
- 24th Oct 1847 – cloudy but fair, aurora
- 1st Nov 1847 – a bright day, aurora
- 19th Feb 1852 – snow, aurora at night (705/453/volume 2, Worcestershire Record Office).
And more in the meteorological register belonging to George Higgens of Waltham on the Wolds:
- 7th March 1918 – aurora borealis
- 25th Dec 1918 – aurora borealis
- 7-8th June 1920 – aurora borealis (DE7316/1, Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Archives)
- 23 and 24th Jan 1938 – slight aurora
- 25 Jan 1938 – brilliant aurora
- 24th Feb – aurora (DE7316/7, Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Archives)
Parish registers also mention the Northern Lights, Reverend Lea of St Peters, Droitwich noting in his annual summary that:
- 1870 – this has been a wonderful year of fruit… There was a very brilliant aurora borealis for several nights in November (Register of the Parish of St Peter in Droitwich, 850DROITWICHSPA 1/a/iii, Worcestershire Archives).
Aurora borealis and severe weather events
The October 1870 sightings are also noted alongside later ones in a notebook of a school inspector in which he speculates that appearances of the lights might indicate a severe winter lies ahead:
- Aurora borealis – Feb 9 1907, Oct 1870, Thursday March 26 1908, are displays followed by severe winters? (Notebook of school inspector, 899/749/xii, Worcestershire Archives).
A newspaper cutting filed with the diary of Thomas Farmer of Hallow Mills links appearances of the lights in June 1872 to violent storms:
June 29th 1872
ATMOSPHERIC PHENOMENON – A correspondent favours us with the following atmospheric phenomenon as witnessed in this neighbourhood:-“Amongst the remarkable incidents of the meteorology of the year the frequency of electric disturbances in the higher regions of the atmosphere, apparent in the form of Polar Aurora, may be noted. To add to the long list of recorded instanced there was, on Monday night, an exhibition of Polar Aurora of considerable magnitude and rather unusual features. The earlier indication of electric energy was the appearance after sunset of a stronger glare than usual diffused in the North-West. At daybreak a change occurred. In place of the diffused light, pale columns of phosphorescent vapour were projected to the zenith and thenceforward until midday long streamers in slow succession rose from the horizon and spreading fan like, floated lazily over the zenith and faded in the South Eastern sky. This display of electric action was followed on Tuesday and Wednesday night by storms of hail, or, in some places, of ragged pieces of ice, and rain and thunder and lightning of terrible and destructive energy damaging crops, flooding meadows, and taking life (899/1576/7-10, Worcestershire Archives).
Eric Pochin’s diary (mentioned above) also contains a cutting from the Observer of February 10th 1946 that includes appearances of the Northern Lights within a list of ‘superstitious diviners’:
COMMENT – Sunspots at their spottiest, Northern lights blazing, a comet abroad in the heavens, tempest, flood, ruin of harvests, and wide-spread famine. We seem to live in the crazy world of the superstitious diviners.
E.H. Morse of Brundall, Norfolk similarly speculates about what the appearance of the lights in January 1949 indicated for the weather ahead:
- 24 Jan 1949 – Dull, cool, quiet, after drizzle, Northern lights seen in Yarmouth
- 25 Jan 1949 – frosty, but milder & calm, Northern lights seen in Scotland
- Jan 1949 – It is said very bad weather always follows the appearance of the aurora borealis. We shall see! (MC 145/1, Norfolk Record Office)
I wonder if anyone will draw links between the recent appearances of aurora borealis and a severe winter if we have one?!
As always, we’d like to hear from you if you know of any other accounts of appearances of the aurora borealis in the UK, particularly if they are linked to extreme weather events.
This is fascinating, Lucy. Great material!
The Aurora Borealis was certainly considered to be among the most portentous of visual atmospheric phenomena. I found a reference in a 1996 paper by Fara (http://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/content/1996/42/37.full.pdf) that further discusses the phenomenon.
As Fara (1996: 38) suggests, “the Aurora carries culturally specific symbolisms which arise from a unique interaction of natural events and local interpretation.”
I am particularly intrigued now by the 1715 reference because I think for our project this may be significant- other documents suggest it was March 1716 so this retrospective recollection is interesting in itself! As you say, the reference to 1715 was from a document that was written much later and this demonstrates some of the intriguing, if challenging, memory related issues that feature in some aspects of our work). Our data base will really help with corroboration of the temporal and spatial specificities of events in due course.
Fara notes that the dramatic appearance in March 1716 provoked a good deal of both speculation and scientific interest. Crowds had apparently stared up at the sky “where they fancied they saw Armies engag’d, Giants with Flaming swords, Fiery Comets, Dragoons [sic] and the like dreadful figures” (Fara,1996:37). Writers referred to the event as “The Civil War in the Clouds”, and a whole variety of superstitious and religious explanations abounded. Links were drawn between these sky apparitions and socio-political unrest and subversion (something discussed in Jankovic’s Reading the Skies, 2001: 68) and specifically the coincidence of the Jacobite uprising and in particular the public execution of two Jacobite rebels. The appearance of the aurora at this time was regarded as “divine resentment over a guilty world” (Article in Weekly Journal, 10 March, 1716, cited in Fara, 1996: 37).
Thanks Georgina – interesting stuff. I’ll re-look at the archival source this week and see if I can find a copy of the published volume that the archival notes were copied from. I guess it’s similar to a game of Chinese Whispers where the error could have crept in at any one of a number of stages! Definitely important to consider error and memory in our work, hopefully we’ll find more references to the 1715/6 event and similarly multiple accounts of other extreme events too which will help to determine accuracy!
On my last fishing holiday in Norway I had the evening happiness that I could see anything of the Aurora . The sky was clear, but the Aurora very weak. Nevertheless, it was beautiful and that’s why I ‘m going again this year in the fishing holiday to Norway
Thanks for your comment Lukas – we’re also interested in the appearance of Aurora Borealis as a tourist attraction, and will also be looking at other types of extreme and unusual weather which attract sightseers!
Fascinating materials! An Aurora Borealis was recorded in North-West Italy as well in September 1870 by a priest from the Val di Vara (unpublished manuscript)
Thanks for the article.
I have notes of the observation of an aurora borealis (described as red with white stripes) from a boat on the Atlantic (approx 47°N 37°W on that day, ave. speed 10knots/h) at 21:30 (time local to boat) for about 30min. The event followed a storm. No mention of the aurora in the following days (but it is unclear whether clouds were present either).
Thanks for reading and contributing your account Alexis.