Hitler and Napoleon, two men intent on conquering the globe, failed to recognize that the planet is much more than a collection of maps. History has demonstrated, time and again, one simple truth: Nature does not carry a passport. It rains down on everyone and everything with equal unconcern, the rich as well as the poor, the mighty as well as the small. In the immortal words of the (Unitarian) poet e.e. cummings, “the snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches.”
In a world of nations and states, weather is the great equalizer, reminding us from time to time that we share one world and that the air knows no boundaries. We inhabit a small planet where soil erosion in Africa affects the rainfall in Australia, where the sun reflecting off the New York City pavement causes storms in Uzbekistan. An arrogant belief that we are more powerful than natural systems leads to disaster, just as it did for these historical figures.
If you want to cultivate respect for the elements, it can’t hurt to live in an extremely inhospitable environment. Russia is home to the coldest city on Earth, Yakutsk. Moscow employs a team of professional mountaineers to climb onto rooftops and knock down huge icicles to keep them from falling and impaling passersby. Russians are proud of their hideous weather, and they’ll often describe a –40°C (–40°F) day with the same pride a fisherman uses to describe an especially large marlin he caught. The necessity of adapting to the elements has served the Russian people very well. When all hope seems lost and the casualties of war are mounting, there is a cold war the Russians almost always win—the battle with the elements.
In 1812, Napoleon assembled the largest army Europe had ever seen—more than 600,000 strong. His plan was to march boldly into Russia. He was not at all worried that winter was approaching. Napoleon’s confidence appeared well-founded when his soldiers captured Moscow. They pillaged the city and stole jewels and furs as war prizes to present to their wives back home.
Then the one thing that Napoleon had failed to consider became abundantly clear. As Napoleon’s army marched away from the ruined city with their spoils, temperatures fell to –40°C. The soldiers fell to frostbite and starvation. In one twenty-four-hour period, 50,000 horses died from the cold. The men wrapped up in their wives’ war prizes, but to no avail. Of the 600,000 men who marched into Russia, only 150,000 would limp home. It was the beginning of the end for Napoleon’s Empire and heralded the emergence of Russia as a power in Europe.
Adolf Hitler, apparently not much of a student of history, decided to repeat Napoleon’s attack on Moscow—and he followed the example a little too literally. In late September 1941, Operation Typhoon began its sweep into the Soviet Union. The German army was so confident it would win against Stalin’s troops that several units brought dress uniforms along for the victory march in Red Square. What they didn’t bring along, however, was winter clothing. In early December, the mercury dropped to –35°C (–31°F) and heavy snow began to fall. German soldiers, dressed in summer clothing, tried without success to dig for shelter in the frozen ground. Their war machines were not designed to function in the frosty conditions—supply vehicles broke down, rail tracks shattered, planes could not fly, machine guns iced over. Fresh Siberian soldiers, however, had lived with such conditions all their lives. Dressed in layers, with felt boots and warm coats, and with tanks designed to operate in ice and snow, they attacked the faltering Germans. Then, just as the cold began to abate, the Germans encountered another Russian weather phenomenon, the Rasputitsa.
Rasputitsa is the time of year when the snow melts and the roads become an impassable quagmire. In Russia, the temperature can rise and fall with amazing speed. One hour it is below freezing, the next it has climbed above, only to plummet again. This combination creates puddles of mud, potholes that are hard to see because they are filled with slush and slick ice covered in mounds of mushy earth or snow. Hitler realized his mistake too late. His meteorologically-assisted defeats in the Soviet Union, outside both Moscow and in Stalingrad, were turning points in the war.
Somewhere along the line, military men started to pay attention to these lessons. Meteorologists were an essential part of the Allied planning for the D-Day invasion. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. government began full-scale experiments on seeding clouds to create on-demand monsoons that would interfere with enemy transportation.
What scientists have learned in their experiments with redirecting hurricanes and seeding monsoons is that what works on a small scale often creates unexpected havoc. Try to control a storm system in one spot, and it pops up somewhere else, like a mechanical creature in a Whack-A-Mole arcade game.
Yet nature does respond to us, whether we intend it or not. The conveniences of modern life—many of which were designed to shield us from the elements—influence the environment and the weather in turn. In urban areas, where greenery is scarce and pavement is not, tall buildings block the path of winds and expand the surface areas that absorb solar heat. The result is an effect known as the “urban heat island.” It is particularly pronounced in Japanese cities like Tokyo, where high humidity multiplies the effect of rising heat. Tokyo today is 3°C hotter than it was a century ago. Palm trees native to subtropical southern China are springing up in the city as flocks of parakeets native to southern India and Sri Lanka fly overhead. NASA scientists observing satellite images of Atlanta, Georgia (nicknamed “Hotlanta” for its nightlife), found that the hottest parts of downtown were as much as 10°F hotter than the surrounding area and that this difference caused air to rise and created thunderstorms. If you live East of the city and a tornado comes your way, you may have Hotlanta to thank.
Try to solve the heat problem by switching on the air conditioning and you only make things worse. Air conditioners produce hot air as a byproduct of the cooling process, and the waste heat is released outdoors. New research suggests that the waste heat can add as much as two degrees Fahrenheit to outdoor urban temperatures. Who said nature didn’t have a sense of humor?
In the wake of the terrorists’ attacks of September 11, which shut down all air traffic, scientists were able to measure the effect of jets on weather systems. The contrails created by air travel are essentially unnatural clouds. And in the absence of the Twin Towers, lightning patterns over Manhattan were altered.
We are, it appears, not merely at the mercy of the elements. We are in a marriage with the elements. Societies cannot exist without impacting the air around us, and what we do to the sky is destined eventually to rain down on us. Human society is shaped by the weather, impacts the weather, and then must adapt to these newly created patterns. Each one of us is only a small part in this complex and interdependent system. It is a union that encompasses all the people and all the creatures of the earth. We can try to ignore this vital fact, but we do so at our own peril. We cannot win the battle with nature, because we are a part of nature. A battle with nature is, in the long run, a battle against ourselves.
Adapted with permission from Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History, copyright 2006 by Laura Lee (Harper).
- Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History. By Laura Lee. Harper, 2006. (Amazon.com)