How The Hurricane Got Its Name

It’s more than just whimsy

Our hurricane-naming system evolved much the same way our baby-naming system did. Just as it’s easier to say “Jane Q. Smith” than to reel off a list of her identifying characteristics, so forecasters in the nineteenth century grew tired of referring to every big storm by its longitude, latitude, and date of origin. But that was the official protocol until the early 1950s, and more than once it led to dangerous mix-ups.Read more »

Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters

There is something uniquely chilling about a natural disaster, the uncontrolled, unpreventable fury of normally benign elements: a blue sky now black exploding in water and electricity; the air around us suddenly quick, weaponized; a resort lake bewitched into a ferocious wall of water; the solidity of the very ground belied. In these moments nature proves its dominance, as if to remind us that there are some things in its arsenal before which we will always be powerless.

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San Francisco Then And Now

On the 100th anniversary of the 1906 calamity, a student of earthquakes seeks its traces in the city he loves most.

The scale of the disaster is hard to comprehend. A government report listed 28,188 buildings destroyed. The official number of dead or missing was 674, though a reassessment years later put it closer to 3,000. People had fled in so many directions that it was impossible to get a reasonable estimate of the number of homeless, but most historians agree it was somewhere between 225,000 and 300,000.Read more »

The New Deal And The Guru

How Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture sent an eccentric Russian mystic on a sensitive mission to Asia and thereby created diplomatic havoc, personal humiliation, and embarrassment for the administration

Early in 1934 Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace appointed Nicholas Roerich, a renowned painter and a self-proclaimed guardian of world peace and culture, to lead a scientific expedition to North China and Manchuria, to search for drought-resistant grasses that might revive the Dust Bowl. By the time the project ended, in 1935, the eccentric artist had compromised America’s diplomatic position in Asia, embarrassed the Roosevelt administration, humiliated Wallace, and damaged the careers of several botanists.Read more »

Blizzard

An astonishing saga of endurance and high courage told by a man who lived through it

This is a true story of a boy and his family living on the high prairie in a dobe house in eastern Colorado and the tragic experience that occurred in March 1931. Read more »

Part I Four Centuries Of Surprises

We talk about it constantly and we arrange our lives around it. So did our parents; and so did the very first colonists. But it took Americans a long time to understand their weather—and we still have trouble getting it right.

Weather makes news headlines almost every day in some community in the United States. “The weather is always doing something,” said Mark Twain, “always getting up new designs and trying them on people to see how they will go.” On any day of the year, two or three weather systems are in action, dividing the country into distinct weather zones and producing what Twain called a “sumptuous variety” of conditions. A northeaster may be racing up along the Atlantic seaboard with gales and drenching rains, menacing ships and planes.Read more »

The Ultimate Storm

The Great Lakes hurricane of 1913 was a destructive freak. As far as lakers were concerned, it was …

SOMEWHERE IN THE emptiness between Hudson Bay and the Rockies, a vagrant puff of wind raised a dusty snow and went skittering over the plains, picking up a spiral here and another one there to create a north-country November blizzard of the kind that rages lustily for a few days and then blows itself out with no great harm done. But in this first week of November 1913, things were a bit different. Read more »

The Tempest

The storm that wrecked the Virginia-bound ship Sea Venture in 1609 inspired a play by Shakespeare— and the survivors’ tribulations may well have sown the first seeds of democracy in the New World

The story of the British ship Sea Venture is one of history’s most remarkable sagas, an almost unbelievable tale of shipwreck, endurance, and human resourcefulness. But it is more than that. The fate of the survivors of the Sea Venture reverberates in literature, in political theory—in the very founding of America. Read more »

Earthquake

An all-but-forgotten San Francisco photographer has left us a grand and terrible record of the destruction and rebirth of an American city

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Katmai

Sixty-eight years before Mount St. Helens blew, Alaska’s Mount Katmai erupted—and nearly brought on a second ice age

On August 26, 1883, Krakatoa, a small island between Java and Sumatra in western Indonesia, erupted with a violence perhaps unprecedented in geological history. Nearly five cubic miles of material were blown into the atmosphere. A 120-foot tidal wave swept the coasts of nearby islands, destroying 295 villages and drowning 36,000 people.Read more »