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November 1, 2012

Six storms that changed the course of history

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

SUNKEN ARMADA

In 1588, the "invincible" Spanish Armada of 130 ships set sail to attack the English Channel, but was delayed by a series of storms that forced the fleet back to Lisbon. When the Spanish fleet finally arrived two months later, the British Navy, led by Lord Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake, had regrouped and was able to mount a spirited defense of the Channel. Disorganized and battered by British artillery, the Armada retreated and began the treacherous journey back to Spain. Along the way, the leading Spanish ships were rocked by a cyclonic depression off the Bay of Biscay and, three days later, the rearmost ships were battered on the rocks off the shores of Ireland. In total, the Spanish lost more ships in bad weather than in combat with the British.

PARIS HAILSTORM

If the opulence of the royal court at Versailles and France's increasingly shaky financial situation were at the root of the revolution of 1789, perhaps so was the weather. Beginning in 1785, a series of bad harvests — possibly the result of volcanic eruptions in Iceland that shifted weather patterns — contributed to food shortages that roiled an already restive underclass. But the final straw was quite possibly a hailstorm in May 1788 that destroyed crops in a 150-mile radius around Paris, sending grain prices through the roof. Ten months later, following the failed meeting of the Estates-General and the formation of a breakaway National Assembly, the French Revolution was underway.

BHOLA CYCLONE

The Great Bhola cyclone wasn't particularly strong by historical standards — it may not have even been the strongest gale to strike the Indian Ocean in 1970 — but its fateful timing and unlucky course through the densely populated Ganges Delta of East Pakistan made it the deadliest cyclonic storm ever. Carrying 115 mile per hour winds, it destroyed crops and razed entire villages, leaving roughly half a million people dead when all was said and done. Relations between Pakistan and its disconnected easternmost province were already strained before the storm, but the Pakistani government's handling of the Bhola cyclone caused the tensions to boil over into violent anti-government protests and, by 1971, civil war. Nine bloody months later, Bangladeshis had won their independence from Pakistan.

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