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How Weather Can Shape The Course Of History

Library of Congress
The Great Galveston Hurricane killed more than 10,000 people in 1900.

What causes cities to grow and prosper – or not? Why does one side defeat another in war? Those are complex situations with a lot of contributing factors. One factor that history doesn’t often point out is weather.

Storms, hurricanes, fog and the like can change the course of events. Joel Myers, the founder of commercial weather forecasting service AccuWeather, has spent some time looking into that.

He tells Jennifer Stayton he believes Texas wouldn’t look like it does today without events such as the Great Galveston Hurricane, a Category 4 storm that killed more than 10,000 people in 1900.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Joel Myers: You know, at that time, Galveston was the third largest city in Texas, just right behind Dallas and one other city. Of course, that changed everything and gave rise to Houston, which was 50 miles further inland [and] protected by a bay, and so, it was thought to be safer (until Harvey). And of course, there was no air conditioning back then, and with the rise of air conditioning that allowed Houston to grow rapidly. It's now the fourth largest city in the United States.

Jennifer Stayton: Do you believe had it not been for this storm that Houston might have had a different trajectory as a major city?

Myers: Oh, absolutely, yeah. Galveston might be the large city.

Stayton: But Galveston's got such a confined area to it, it could only grow so to a certain size.

Myers: Well, it's getting out of my field, but certainly that's we can all speculate.

Stayton: I want to ask about Hurricane Harvey. We obviously don't have that long-term historical perspective on it yet, but I'm curious if you have a sense what Texas might see as a result of Harvey.

Myers: Harvey and Irma and what happened with Maria in Puerto Rico is going to have a significant impact on legislation. It's going to have an impact on planning, building codes and so on. Some of the programs need to be looked at to be more effective, to not encourage building in places where they're going to be flooded out time and time again. And it's going to affect government budgets, taxes and so on. The wildfires in California, I believe, are going to put a hole in the California budget.

All of these dramatic events – and this was the costliest year for disasters of this sort in history ­– they're going to have an economic impact. You just can't wipe out that much wealth and expect that not to.

Stayton: You talk about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and you say that weather played a part in that. What part did weather play in that?

Myers: When he landed, it had been raining and the rain just stopped. ... He was shot around 1 p.m.; he landed around 10 a.m. at the Dallas airport. The bubble top was on the car and if the rain continued, the bubble top would have been left on, and nobody [would have been able] to get a shot at him. But the rain stopped and he wanted to connect with the crowd, so he ordered the bubble top off.

It's interesting to speculate [what] if the rain had continued a few more hours? President Kennedy would have continued on as president. As it turned out Lyndon Baines Johnson became president as a result of the assassination and that had all kinds of political ramifications. President Kennedy, his popularity had been declining. He was not getting any legislation through. President Johnson was able to get civil rights legislation passed, [as well as] a whole bunch of social programs.

Also, President Kennedy was opposed to escalation of the war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson's main focus was on domestic affairs. He took the war to the generals and the advisers ... and of course, he escalated in Vietnam, sent a half-million troops there. So, it's interesting to speculate [what] three more hours of rain might have done to change the course of this entire country.

Stayton: Well, it's definitely speculation, because, of course you think, "Well, the assassination could have also happened a different place, different time of day." But it's interesting to think about that role of weather.

If you look back over the research that you've done and the events you've looked at, is there one event that seems to stand out ahead of the others where weather played a really major role or one that people might not think of that weather would be involved in?

Myers: There are so many. I mean, we know America won the war because [George] Washington knew about weather and was able to use his knowledge of weather to outwit the British. The British attacked again in the War of 1812 and occupied Washington, D.C., and burned it. A bad rainstorm came through with tornadoes [and] killed more British soldiers, and the Americans discouraged them and they gave up and lost the War of 1812. So, a couple times weather intervened.

You go back 72,000 years – which is not a long time in the history of the world certainly – and because of a great volcanic eruption and the dust and debris put into the atmosphere, which cut down the sunlight [and] caused all kinds of destruction [and] health issues, the number of humans on the planet was down to 2,000. And there might have been as few as 40 living humans able to procreate, and so humans almost disappeared from the planet just 72,000 years ago because of this volcanic eruption, which shielded the earth and eliminated photosynthesis and so plant life died and so on.

Stayton: Dr. Joel Myers is the founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather. We thank you so much for your time and sharing your work in research with us.

Myers: My pleasure. It was enjoyable, thank you. 

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