Irish hurricanes, landslides and tsunamis: a frightening forecast

Ailis O’Carroll


Asked to picture Irish weather, a dull and depressing image of the rainclouds that have so recently began to fill our skies, signaling the end of our glorious summer, would most probably fill the majority of Irish minds. Some of the more optimistic among you may picture the unbelievable days we had this summer on Irish, yes Irish, beaches; the white sands, magnificent clear blue skies and the amazing shades of pink and red Irish bodies. However, I would be sure that next to none of you would picture a tsunami or hurricane. Our little island is thankfully protected, far removed from the closest tectonic boundary in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and most climatic extremes. But are reports of ‘freak weather’ being recorded more and more frequently? Headlines such as “Sea tornado in Bray”, “Twister in Donegal” and, just last month, “Cyclone in Galway” cover front pages. These words all sound very foreign and the more we hear them mixed with headlines such as “freak weather” and other apocalyptic talk, the more we believe that this is another new weapon that increased global warming has unleashed on us. Looking back across the centuries, however, reveals a different story.
Storms and hurricane force wind gusts of over 50 knots (1 knot = 1.85 km/h) have been felt by the west of Ireland and all across the country throughout the past century with Hurricane Katia two years ago and more famously, Hurricane Charley which hit Ireland on 25th August 1986 with devastating effects. Winds of 105 km/h and rainfall peaking at 280 mm in Kippure resulted in the breaking of daily rainfall records and dangerous flooding, inundating over 450 buildings. In Bray, the River Dargle overflowed, flooding some areas with almost two metres of water, leading to the evacuation of 1,000 people. During this storm at least five people were killed and IR£ 6,449,000 (¤8,250,000) was allocated to repairs.
Those who remember back to 1969 will argue that Hurricane Debbie was even more devastating. These storms are usually the tail end of larger storms that have hit the United States or further afield but what we should really be worried about are European windstorms. These are the strongest extratropical cyclones which arise in Europe in association with areas of low atmospheric pressure coming across the North Atlantic Ocean and into western Europe invading countries such as Ireland, the UK, Norway and Iceland, resulting in ¤1.9 billion worth of damage per year. Such a storm our grandparents could not even tell us about but there is evidence that their own parents would have a story or two to tell of ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ or ‘Oídhche na Gaoithe Móire’. Tales of a category three hurricane that swept over Ireland on the night of 6th January 1839, causing the deaths of over 300 people in Ireland with thousands left homeless. A deep Atlantic low-pressure system began colliding with a warm front as it was moving across the country. Many of the deaths were caused by infernos as thatched roofs were ripped off by the winds and caught fire in the hearths below.

“Those who remember back to 1969 will argue that Hurricane Debbie was even more devastating. These storms are usually the tail end of larger storms that have hit the United States or further afield but what we should really be worried about are European windstorms.”

As if the thought of devastating hurricanes and the resulting infernos were not terrifying enough, our island is not immune to other natural disasters. We are used to seeing the horrifying images of Indian and Asian landslides but we rarely worry about the devastating landslides that occur in all areas of our country, especially those covered in peat, and subject to periodic heavy rainfall. The most lethal landslide on record killed 21 people at Castleguard, Co Limerick in 1708. Records from the time state: “The bog moved along a valley and buried three houses, which at the time contained about 21 people. The landslide was a mile long, a quarter mile broad and 20 feet in depth in some parts”. These dangerous landslides are not restricted to our island’s past as evidenced by the destruction caused at Pollatomish, Co Mayo in September 2003. The apocalyptic list grows; along with hurricanes, storms and landslides, earthquakes are added. Images of the Spire in Dublin shaking and buildings collapsing along O’Connell street due to Irish tectonic plate movement will never be seen due to our position away from active plate activity but that does not mean we are immune. On the 25th August 2013 two earthquakes were recorded in the Irish Sea off the English coast. The tremors from this magnitude 3.3 shake were felt along the Irish coast and a magnitude 3.8 earthquake struck on the morning of 29th May 2013 with even greater power. However, the magnitude of these tremors is not enough to cause significant land damage or a tsunami. Yet, the past has taught us never to feel completely safe. In 1755, four hours after the Lisbon earthquake, a three metre high tsunami hit Cornwall in England. The 19th century French writer, Arnold Boscowitz, claimed that “great loss of life and property occurred upon the coasts of Cornwall”. This tsunami did not leave us Irish alone, reaching Galway, at a height of two metres, causing devastating damage to the “Spanish Arch” section of the city wall.
Reconstructing past climatic conditions and weather extremes can be a taxing occupation but with the help of one of the oldest bodies of written literature of any European country, climatologists’ jobs were made a great deal easier. The major local, national and international meteorological events were recorded by the educated elite in Ireland in the Irish annals.
The extreme weather events of 535–536 were the most severe and extensive examples of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2,000 years, resulting in widespread unseasonal weather, crop failures, and famine. The Annals of Ulster tell of “A failure of bread in the year 536 AD” with the Annals of Inisfallen mirroring this. There has been much debate over the cause of these events but all agree that it was due to ash/dust filling the sky and blocking the sun; whether after the impact of a meteorite or a volcanic eruption is still debated. Dendrochronologist Prof Mike Baillie of Queen’s University Belfast has studied the poor growth in Irish oak in 536 and again in 542, and cores of ice from Greenland have been studied due to their abnormally high sulfate deposits in the same period of time, all of which give scientific support the Annals’ claims. “It’s clear that the scribes of the Irish Annals were diligent reports of severe cold weather, most probably because of the negative impacts this had on society and the biosphere,” said Dr Francis Ludlow of Harvard University, a former lecturer in Trinity. The injection of sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere after a volcano erupts or after a meteorite strikes effects the world as a whole, Ireland included.
It is clear that these events are not “freak” occurrences but completely “natural” disasters and here in Ireland we are not immune to them. Meteorites do shower, earthquakes do shake, hurricanes do sweep, landslides do flow, floods do inundate and tsunamis do hit. One of these days we will feel the full force of nature. Until then, perhaps, we shouldn’t moan about the odd spot of rain…