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5 Weather Events Worth Chatting About

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Usually, the weather is a subject for polite, uneventful conversation with people you don't know very well. But sometimes the weather is weird, or even downright scary. Here are a few examples of weather events that gave neighbors more than enough to awkwardly discuss.

1. Dramatic Changes

Midwesterners are accustomed to using both their heat and air conditioning in the same day due to dramatic temperature changes and unseasonable weather. The "Great Blue Norther" of 1911 was the most dramatic cold snap ever recorded—several cities set record high and low temperatures on the same day. On November 11, 1911 (yes, 11/11/11) a massive storm system separated warm air from arctic air, yielding violent wind and storms. Kansas City, Missouri reached a high temperature of 76° F (24°C), and by midnight, the temperature plunged to 11° F (-11 C°). The 65 degree difference was replicated in Oklahoma City and Springfield, Missouri.

In addition to the temperature changes, the front also caused dust storms, tornadoes, and blizzards from Oklahoma to Ohio. Nine people were killed by an F4 tornado in Janesville, Wisconsin; an hour later rescuers were working in near zero temperatures and blizzard conditions to rescue victims. 

2. Raining Rainbows

We've all heard about the damaging effects of acid rain, but what about colored rain? Over the course of an entire month in 2001, deep red rain fell in the Kerala region of India. Yellow, green and black rain was also reported. The rain was such a deep color, residents claimed it stained clothes and resembled blood. The official report found that the unusual rain was caused by spores of a lichen-forming algae sucked into the atmosphere by a waterspout, much to the dismay of many people who thought it was caused by extraterrestrial activity.

Siberia experienced a strange yellow-orange snow in the winter of 2007. The oily, smelly snow was feared to be caused by industrial pollution, a rocket launch or maybe even a nuclear accident, but was eventually blamed on a massive sand storm in Kazakhstan.

3. Disappearing Islands

A hurricane in New York is a pretty rare occurrence—they hit about once every 75 years. In 1893, a Category 2 hurricane made landfall near present-day JFK Airport and caused extensive damage to the city, uprooting trees in Central Park, tossing wrought iron gates through buildings, and destroying nearly every building on Coney Island. The storm also obliterated a mile-long barrier island known as Hog Island, which was home to several saloons and bathhouses. The storm seriously eroded the island and destroyed all of its buildings; a few years later it was reduced to a few mounds of sand. This storm struck well before trendy hurricane names, so it was known only as the West Indian Monster of 1893. Researchers discovered dozens of antique items buried in the sand when the Rockaway Beach shores were being rebuilt in the 1990s.

4. Raining Animals

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Yes, it has rained frogs in real life, not just in the movie Magnolia. Birds, bats, fish and even worms have been reported to fall from the sky. Scientists theorize that fast-moving storms and waterspouts cross a body of water and sweep or suck up animals, then deposit them miles away. Residents of Honduras have celebrated the Lluvia de Peces (Rain of Fish) annually for more than a century. The fish are believed to be sucked up from the ocean and deposited 140 miles inland, while others have indicated that the fish may be from underground water sources.
 
Animals have been known to survive the traumatic process, appearing startled but otherwise fine. But usually, they aren't so lucky, and don't survive the fall. Two instances in the 19th century indicate that cows were sucked up into the sky during a storm, and returned to earth in tiny pieces. Animals can also freeze to death in the frigid temperatures of the atmosphere, some of them are encased in ice when they make landfall. 

5. Disappearing Seasons

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Volcanic winters, a phenomenon in which volcanic ash obscures the rays of the sun and increases the earth's reflectivity, causes dramatic decreases in temperature. In 1816, a volcanic winter led to a year where temperatures were so low in Europe and the United States, it was dubbed The Year Without a Summer. Volcanic ash from several eruptions, including Mount Tambora in Indonesia, caused irregularities worldwide, but the affects were most severe in Europe, Canada and the northern United States. A harsh frost in May destroyed many crops, snowstorms hit New England in June, and ice on rivers and lakes was observed in Pennsylvania in July and August. Snow was reported in tropical climates such as Thailand, along with colored freezing rain and snowfall in Hungary and Italy.

Food shortages forced the price of the surviving crops to record levels, and the effect was particularly devastating in Europe, where countries were still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars. Riots and looting of warehouses became commonplace, especially in Switzerland, where a national emergency was declared. An estimated 200,000 perished from hunger and the cold temperatures in Europe alone.

The strange weather is also credited with several cultural influences. Mary Shelley and John Polidori went on a vacation to Switzerland with their friends were forced to stay inside. To keep things interesting, they started a contest to develop the scariest story, leading to Frankenstein and Vampyre. Due to the lack of feed for horses, German Karl Drais was inclined to invent the velocipede, the predecessor of the modern bicycle.

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Weird
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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Space
The Northern Lights Won’t Be This Bright Again Until 2025
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If you’ve ever camped out to see the northern lights, you know they can be elusive. They’re only visible on dark, clear nights up north when a solar flare or solar wind shoots particles toward Earth. Seeing the phenomenon live takes a bit of luck, but if spectators wish to boost their chances, now's the time. As Thrillist reports, the aurora borealis is at its peak—and won’t be this bright again until 2025.

The colorful lights that seem to bend in the sky over the Arctic Circle are the product of electrons from the Sun colliding with gases in the planet’s atmosphere. The lights are controlled by the Sun, and because solar activity goes through 11-year cycles, so does the aurora borealis.

The Sun is currently at the end of the maximum stage of its cycle. The increased solar activity makes for northern lights that are more frequent and visible farther south. As the Sun starts to move into its minimum phase of activity, the light show will be harder to see from parts of the world to the south of northern Russia, northern Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. The next part of the cycle will last about eight years, with solar activity starting to heat up again around 2025.

On rare occasions, the northern lights can be seen from some of the lower 48 states, like Maine, Michigan, and Washington. But to make sure you catch them in peak season, U.S. residents may have to travel north. Here are a few inexpensive trips you can take to get an eyeful of the spectacle.

[h/t Thrillist]

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