Many years ago I read “A Year of the Quiet Sun – one year at Scott Base” (published 1968) by Adrian Hayter. It was about a year spent in Antarctica during a period when the sun flares are at their lowest ‘shrink’ so to speak. I can’t remember the book very well but I learned that the sun’s flares expand and shrink at a fairly regular pace, following a time pattern of around 11 years at a stretch. Not unexpectedly, this phenomenon affects our climate. In the flare years, there will be hotter temperatures, less rains, more droughts, etc. In the ‘lean’ years, things are cooler and more rainfall can be expected. Anyways, something along those lines (I’m talking about a book I read more than 40 years ago so please don’t get picky).
When it comes to such issues as global warming and climate change, we in Cape Town seem rather lucky in that not a lot really changes. However on Friday night we had something that I’ve never experienced before – and that is a black southeaster that brought torrential rains in from the south east with a ferocity that was frightening. In summer we have a regular (and often irritating wind) called the ‘Cape Doctor’. It blows up from the south east almost daily. Sometimes it drives a dark cloud over Table Mountain and then we call it a black southeaster. But these clouds, while they may spread a gloomy light, rarely bring much in the way of rain. So one is left puzzled by the aberration that blew in on Friday leaving widespread flooding and people sitting on the roofs of their houses.
One tends to jump so quickly to the conclusions of ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ – and many nod with satisfaction that their dire predictions have been vindicated. However, if I think about it, I remember all sorts of weather aberrations over my long life. Unfortunately for those who like to get heated up about this, I have a really good memory that goes back to my babyhood – and I remember when the weather was different and how it has changed and how much has stayed the same – and also how we had exactly these same ‘aberrations’ even way back then. I remember snow on the mountains in Ceres in December, I remember winters without rain and still nights that would drop to desert temperatures of 2C above freezing in Cape Town. In June it was never a surprise to have temperatures soar into the mid-twenties. I remember a couple of days in summer in the eighties when we wilted under 40C. And great, gusting storms coming in from the northwest any time from May to September.
It just seems to me that the more people talk about climate change, the more it seems to stay the same – by which I mean it’s never the same. The earth has cooled and warmed over millennia and many factors have caused this – many probably beyond what we really understand today. We’re a blue dot in an insignificant solar system, cartwheeling in a galaxy which takes approximately 200 million years to complete a rotation. Not only that, but the galaxy itself is travelling through space at something like 680 miles per second. And while we’re not sure where we’re going, we surely don’t know much about the detours and potholes that must await us along the way.
Great storms and weather changes have given us revised coastlines, great archeological treasures such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys and the wooden henge in The Wash, the legacy of the Vikings and memories not so long ago of snowfalls in Yorkshire in the 1920s that covered houses. Not to mention, of course, the ice ages (I put in a plural here because there were more than one). Possibly what we have to be grateful for, is that whatever brought about all this coming and going of the weather definitely contributed to our agile minds.
So was the rain on Friday the result of climate change or perhaps merely the contraction of a solar flare? It may not happen again for a hundred years. In 1824 there was a massive storm in Cape Town that drove all the ships in the bay onto Woodstock beach; the wrecks are still visible today. Nothing of that calibre has struck us since – but if one does, will we claim it to be the result of human efforts to self-destruct? Or will we look further out – beyond our myopic obsession with our own importance, and catch the wink in space…