How Weather has Changed Human History

According to the dictionary, weather is defined as, “1- The general atmospheric condition, as regards to temperature, moisture, winds, or other meteorological phenomena. 2- The common phenomena of wind, rain, cold, heat cloudiness, or storm.” Although weather affects which crops are successful in an area, we will emphasize how weather has changed human history in a more historically dramatic manner. The focus will be toward weather during war times, catastrophic storms affecting human lives and extraordinary meteorological phenomena impacting history.

Let’s begin with the temperature aspect of weather, the cold, in times of war. During World War II in 1945, the United States suffered a “total of 13,000 cases of frostbite and 25,000 cases of trench foot.” Without a doubt such a large number of victims to the cold weather would indeed affect the morale and performance of the soldiers. Accordingly in 1941, “German & Russian 3M German troops move into Russia. One Dr. alone supervised the treatment of 18,500 cases of frostbite and one third of all German autopsies showed frostbite”; certainly this had a huge impact on the results of WWII. The cold also took the lives of 27,500 Russians in 1939 who were frozen to death; 25,000 casualties were suffered by the Fins. During World War I, in 1914 “within four months of the outbreak the British had suffered 9,000 cases of ‘frostbite’ and by the end of the war had suffered 115,000 cold & frostbite injuries. On the eastern front the Russians reported 12,000 cases of frostbite. ~8% of all causalities were due to the cold. The Germans reported 10,000 cases of frostbite in a single night.”(Office of Surgeon General) It makes you wonder why the generals didn’t take the weather into consideration and equip the soldiers appropriately; thus avoiding needless dying.

In the 1800’s we can see even more casualties suffered because of the cold weather. “1812 Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, Napoleon The initial campaign started with 612,000 troops with 25,000 wagons & 200,000 animals. At the start of the retreat Napoleon’s army was reduced to 110,000 men. The retreat was started in October in the rain and with falling temperatures. One month later 60,000 men had died. During the next 6 weeks another 30,000 men were killed.100, 000 killed in action; 200,000 died from other causes; 100,000 became POW’s. During this campaign, the thoughts about slow or no rewarming came into being. Napoleon’s Surgeon-General, Baron Larrey wrote: “Woe to the man benumbed with cold… if he enters suddenly into a too warm room, or came too near to the great fire of a bivouac. The benumbed or frozen extremities… were struck with gangrene, which manifested itself at the very instant, and developed itself with such rapidity that its progress was perceptible to the eye. Or else, the individual was suddenly suffocated by a kind of Putrescence, which appeared to seize upon the pulmonary and cerebral systems, he perished as in asphyxia,”1853 Crimean War British 1,924 cold casualties out of a force of 50,000, 1861 American Civil War 15,000 cold injuries of which 1,075 were serious. Amputations were common with a mortality rate of ~30%.”  It is also recorded that in 1777 Valley Forge General Washington 11,000 men retreated to Valley Forge in December  with 2,000 without shoes or boots and Lafayette wrote, “Feet and legs froze until they became black and it was often necessary to amputate them”; shocking isn’t it? How could a general in their right mind force those young poor soldiers march in the dead of winter without shoes or boots? Were they prisoners, slaves or criminals and punished in this manner? That would be for another article, for now, we are talking about the weather’s impact on human history.  

The Romans worst defeat in their history occurred in the battle of the Teutoberg forest fighting against the Germans. Cassius Dio blamed it on bad weather. They are said to have lost three legions(Gill, N.H.. “Battle in the Teutoberg Forest”. July 5,2010 <>). Again during the battle of Britain “Bad weather stopped the Luftwaffe from daily raids in August but August 15th is seen as a key date as nearly all the Stuka dive-bombers were destroyed by this date as they fell easy prey to the British fighter planes. Therefore, pin-point bombing of radar stations was all but impossible(http://wwwhistorylearningsite.couk/batleofbritian.htm).Too little rain or excessive flooding can produce famines and thus change human history. For example, during the 12th century the ranks of the Crusades were filled of people who saw no way out of the famine at the time. The French Revolution  and the Bolshevik Revolution were preceded by famines. In 1974 Haile Selasi was overthrown amidst the great famine in Ethiopia.  As a result of people looking for a better way to survive amid famines, they have migrated to other countries affecting its history. Another weather phenomena, the dust storms is said to have caused “extensive damage and turned day to night”, “On April 14, 1935, known as theGreat Depression  in the region.”

There have been many hurricanes which have impacted human history causing a huge lost of life and property damage; yet the hurricane in October of 1743 “what would become the Northeastern United States and New England, brought gusty winds and rainy conditions as far as Philadelphia, and produced flooding in Boston. Central barometric pressure of the storm was measured to be 29.35 inches of Hg in Boston. This storm, which wasn’t particularly powerful, was memorable because it garnered the interest of future patriot and one of the founders of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, who believed the storm, was coming in from Boston. However, it was going to Boston. Nevertheless, it began the long educational journey, which would be our understanding of hurricanes.” Another famous weather disaster occurred in 1703 “To this day, it remains the worst storm in British history after claiming 8000 lives. This great storm was in fact witnessed by Daniel Defone, whose account of it, written in the immediate aftermath, made his reputation and is still in print today.” Even in ancient history it is documented that “Caesar’s first attempt to invade Britain in 55BC was abandoned after his cavalry ships were forced back by a ferocious storm.” Interesting, isn’t it? There have been many instances of weird weather documented. Such unusual weather phenomena like: diamond dust, the raining of fish, worms, spiders etc. which are said to be caused by cyclones picking up the animals and depositing over other places. Please check the sources below for more examples of how weather has changed history.