Category Archives: Natural disasters in Britain

How a volcanic eruption in Iceland affected Britain

The Laki Fissure

The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption has ruined travel plans but does not rank as particularly disastrous, except financially for the air companies.  A volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 – the Laki Fissure eruption – was catastrophic for the Icelanders (25% of the population died in the ensuing famine) and had serious consequences in Britain.

The amount of volcanic ash in the atmosphere over the UK gave rise to the “sand-summer”, as the 1783 summer became known. The amount of sulphur dioxide released by the eruption was colossal – 120 million tons:

approximately equivalent to three times the total annual European industrial output in 2006, and also equivalent to a Mount Pinatubo-1991 eruption every three days – Wikipedia

The resulting smog – the Laki Haze – was deadly, killing as it spread over western Europe.  It reached Great Britain by late June of 1783, and thousands died from sulphur dioxide poisoning, outdoor workers being particularly vulnerable.

The effect on the weather was no less dramatic.  As the haze heated up, a serious of heavy thunderstorms were unleashed, hailstones causing livestock losses.  Gilbert White described that summer in The Natural History of Selborne: Continue reading How a volcanic eruption in Iceland affected Britain

Record rainfall in the Lake District

The Guardian’s Country Diary has a vivid description of the recent torrential rain in the Lake District, which resulted in the catastrophic flooding of the Cockermouth area. Here’s an extract:

Sheets of precipitation ran off the waterlogged ground and into the becks and rivers, which stampeded downhill causing landslides and destroying bridges and collapsing embankments.  . . . few Lakeland valleys escaped. Waterfalls cascaded down crags, sweeping scree on to roads so that rocks litter the tarmac, some big enough to have smashed through drystone walls and leave gouges in the fellsides in their wake.

About 25 cm of rain fell in 24 hours, making it the wettest day ever recorded in Cumbria. This quantity is the equivalent of the rainfall usually experienced in the Southeast of England over 5-6 months. Newcastle University researchers have found that rainstorms in the UK have doubled in intensity over the last 40 years, due in part to increased water evaporation from warmer seas.

Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

Anyone out of the country that week in October came back to find an altered landscape.  An estimated 15 million trees had been toppled, mainly in southern England, which bore the brunt of the hurricane-force winds.  The north of Britain is used to ferocious winds, but the south hadn’t experienced anything like it for nearly 300 years.  The result was a large population of very tall, old trees that had never been tested by such severe weather conditions. Continue reading Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

Zoological and natural hazards in Britain

Volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes, lizard bites and hornet stings caused some of the more unusual injuries listed by the Department of Health (DoH).

From the Guardian here :
Accidents cost the NHS about £1bn a year. The most common cause of injury was falling, which led to 119,203 admissions to casualty.

Thousands suffered attacks from a wide variety of animals. These included 451 people stung by hornets, 46 bitten by venomous snakes and lizards, 24 bitten by rats, 15 injured in contact with a marine mammal, two people bitten by centipedes and one attacked by an alligator. But dogs accounted for most injuries with 3,508 people suffering bites.

Hundreds more fell victims to natural hazards, with 54 people struck by lightning, 37 victims of “volcanic eruption” (sic), 25 injured in “cataclysmic storms”, 12 suffered from avalanches and seven were victims of earthquakes. A further 107 were exposed to “unspecified forces of nature”.

Adder bites in the UK

From the NHS (Plus lots of information on symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of adder bites)

  • Each year, approximately 100 cases of adder bites are reported in the UK. Most bites occur between February and October, with the number of bites peaking during the summer months. Note: I was bitten by an adder in Norfolk in 1972 when I was seven, though it did not inject much venom).
  • Since records began in 1876 there have only been 14 reported deaths caused by adder bites, with the last death  a 5-year-old child in 1975.
  • In addition to the adder, it is estimated that there are 75 species of exotic venomous snakes held in the UK, both legally and illegally, by private snake collectors and enthusiasts. These snakes are thought to be responsible for between five to six cases of snake bites in the UK each year. Most cases involve the snake’s owner

Statistically you have more chance of being killed by a wasp than dying at the teeth of Britain’s only venomous snake. The Independent

Worst natural disaster in British history

According to experts a tsunami in the Bristol Channel could have caused the deaths of as many as 2,000 people in one of Britain’s greatest natural disasters.


Shading shows area affected by the 1607 disaster

For centuries, it has been thought that the great flood of January 1607 was caused by high tides and severe storms. It is estimated that 200 square miles of land in south Wales and south west England were covered by water. Eyewitness accounts of the disaster, published in six different pamphlets of the time, told of “huge and mighty hills of water” advancing at a speed “faster than a greyhound can run” and only receding 10 days later. Professor Simon Haslett, from Bath Spa University College, said: “There is an overall theme running through the pamphlets of a destructive event, very violent, disastrous, on a scale that is unprecedented.” Australian geologist Ted Bryant, from the University of Wollongong, agreed: “The waves are described as mountainous – that’s a description of a tsunami.” Read all (BBC)

Bristol Channel floods, 1607 (Wikipedia)

On 30 January 1607 the Bristol Channel floods resulted in the drowning of an estimated 2,000 or more people, with houses and villages swept away, an estimated 200 square miles (518 km2) of farmland inundated and livestock destroyed, wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel. The devastation was particularly bad on the Welsh side from Laugharne in Carmarthenshire to above Chepstow on the English border. Cardiff was the most badly affected town. The coasts of Devon and the Somerset Levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles (23 km) from the coast, were also affected.

There remain plaques up to 8 feet (2 m) above sea level to show how high the waters rose on the sides of the surviving churches. It was commemorated in a contemporary pamphlet God’s warning to the people of England by the great overflowing of the waters or floods.

“Gods Warning to his people of England.”. The British Library. Fascinating contemporary account

“Many there were which fled into the tops of high trees, and there were inforced to abide some three daies, some more, and some lesse, without any victuals at all, there suffring much colde besides many other calamities, and some of them in such sort, that through overmuch hunger and cold, some of them fell down againe out of the Trees, and so were like to perish for want of succour. Othersome, safe in the tops of high Trees as aforesaid, beholding their wives, children and servants, swimming (remediles of all succour) in the Waters. “

Other UK tsunamis include a 70ft high wave that hit Scotland 7,000 years ago, following a massive landslip in Norway.