Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Great Stink and Some Other Heatwaves

The scorching conditions, which saw the mercury peak at 3.42pm, local time, at the remote South Australian gas region, also sent temperatures soaring in other parts of the eastern interior. The 49.6 reading is the highest for the location and the hottest recorded during the fortnight-long heat spell.  

Australia has posted nine days of average maximum temperatures above 39 degrees in 2013. Seven of the 20 hottest days by average maximum have been registered just this month. A delayed northern monsoon means there is less moisture and cloud cover over the continent, leaving a huge inland area to bake for most of the past two weeks. "The last four months of 2012 were the warmest on record and that's extending into January," Mr Plummer (Bureau of Meteorology, assistant director of climate services) said. 
- News report, Sydney Morning Herald 12.01.2013 

Oz is going through a heatwave at the moment but it pales when compared with some historical examples: 

London, The Great Stink: 

Medieval England had disposed of its human waste into cesspools which there then manually emptied by workers transporting the waste to the country by carts where it was sold to farmers as fertiliser. Laws prohibited waste being put into cesspools or ditches where it could pollute waterways but overflowing and flooding from rain meant that contamination and pollution still occurred. Whereas in the mid 14th century the population of London had been about 100,000, in 1800 the population was nearly one million and in 1850 more than two million. Half of Great Britain’s population was living in towns. 

Waste disposal was made more difficult by 
  • the increased population, which greatly exceeded the infrastructure to support it; 
  • the development of the flush toilet; 
  • the inability of farmers to use the volume of waste required to be removed; 
  • the import of cheaper guano for use as fertiliser, causing farmers to cease taking waste. 
In 1815 the restrictions on disposing of waste into the storm waters were lifted as a result of lobbying by private water companies. Household waste was dumped into the Thames, the water from which was pumped back to homes for drinking, cooking and bathing. Needless to say, epidemics of typhoid, diarrhoea and cholera became common. 

In 1858 a heatwave hit London. The Thames and many of its urban tributaries were overflowing with sewage. The heatwave caused the bacteria to thrive, the smell becoming so bad that it was known as The Big Stink and The Great Stink. It prevented the Houses of Parliament and the law courts functioning effectively and caused much of the population to evacuate London. According to a website which examines the Thames and cholera, “all the sewage in the Thames began to ferment in the scorching sun—centuries of waste was literally cooking in the monstrous heat. The result was a smell as offensive and disgusting as can ever be imagined. It spawned accounts such as the following: there were “stories flying of men struck down with the stench, and of all kinds of fatal diseases, up-springing on the river’s banks.”

Eventually the rains flushed the river system and removed the stink. The stink also resulted in the allocation of funds for a complete overhaul of the sewer system. 

Punch magazine cartoon depicting "Father Thames" introducing his offspring--diphtheria, scrofula and cholera--to the City of London. 

New York City, 1948: 

In August 1948, the temperature hit 42 degrees C/108 degrees F in New York City as part of a week long heatwave that hit the northeastern US. Temperatures stayed around the 38C/100F mark for 5 days with New York City and Philadelphia being the hardest hit. At least 33 died. 

According to Time
In the big cities, as asphalt pavements softened to the consistency of taffy, hundreds of factories and offices began letting the help off early. When they didn't, the help just stayed away. There were 20,000 absentees in Detroit automobile plants on the day after the heat wave began. Attendance at big-league baseball games dwindled. Women went on sitting under beauty-parlor hair dryers (see cut) but only after stripping off half their clothes and donning toga-like sheets. 
Coney Island on a hot day in the 1950’s 

North America, 1936 

Following one of the coldest winters on record, the 1936 heatwave came at a time when the US was still recovering from the Great Depression and was feeling the effects of the Dustbowl, with temperatures reaching 49C/120F in some regions. The death toll exceeded 5,000, and huge numbers of crops were destroyed by the heat and lack of moisture. Many states and cities recorded high temperatures that stood until the 2012 heatwave. 

New York's Coney Island during the North American Heat Wave of 1936. 

Dorothea Lange’s photograph of migrant workers in Texas making their way to California during the 1936 heatwave in the hope of better conditions. 

Australia 2009: 

Three days of 43C/109F weather in Southeastern Australia in early 2009 resulted in airconditioner use blowing out the city’s electrical grid, buckling the rail lines and causing bushfires. The highest temperature recorded was in Hopetoun, Victoria – 49C/120F. Melbourne recorded its highest temperature on record: 46C/115F. The heatwave contributed to the extreme bushfire conditions that resulted in the Black Saturday bushfires that killed 173 people in Victoria. Ten months later, in November 2009, a second heatwave struck the same areas. 

Images from 2009, Australia

Europe, 2003 

The 2003 European heat wave was the hottest summer on record in Europe since at least 1540. The heat wave led to health crises in several countries and combined with drought to create a crop shortfall in parts of Southern Europe. The European death toll is estimated at 70,000 with France being the hardest hit, having nearly 15,000 deaths related to the heatwave. Strangely, most of the French deaths were not the weakest and most vulnerable but those who were in better condition. Elderly persons with family support or those residing in nursing homes were more likely to have others who could make the adjustments for them, the weakest group thereby having fewer deaths than more physically fit persons who had no support or family members to assist. 

New York City 1977: 

In 1977 New York City experienced both a brutal heatwave and a major blackout. Unlike other blackouts in the past, this one resulted in riots, vandalism, looting and arson. 

According to a writer to the New York Times: 
What with the heat, the fire hydrants fanning out big sprays across the streets full of sweaty people, the looting, no subways, little work, no elevators, no refrigerators, Son of Sam roaming around, boyfriend sick, and punk rock as the sound track in my young head, Blackout '77 was a surreal, fun, scary holiday in New York City near its glorious nadir. 

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