Apocalypse now – why orange skies have become the new abnormal

The UK response to Hurricane Ophelia saw anxiety over climate change merge with age-old portents of doom.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In Shakespeare’s Britain, rare natural events were fearful affairs – foretelling mishap to soul and state. Look out for “disasters in the sun", Horatio warns the Prince in Hamlet (who was himself a disastrous son).

Fast forward to 2017, and the UK is still hooked on omens of doom. On Monday, #apocalypse started trending in response to Hurricane Ophelia’s eerie orange sky:

Interpretations of extreme weather have always reflected “our fears and anxieties of a world unravelling," says Mike Hulme, a geographer at the University of Cambridge. In some ways yesterday's blood-red sun was no different: “We seek a comforting – for us, scientific – explanation of the sky’s unusual appearance, reassuring us that it is not portentous of uncanny events yet to come."

Except that in today’s Mad Max style climate, science offers little comfort. Instead it confronts us with the reality of human-induced climate change: the most immense and disruptive shift we are ever likely to face.

According to the Met Office, Ophelia's lightshow was the result of the rare, hurricane force-winds that travelled from the Sahara to the northern coasts of the British Isles, throwing particles of dust high up into the atmosphere on their way. At time of writing, three people have died and more than 200,000 have been left without electricity in Northern Ireland, after the storm felled trees and power lines across the country.

Of course this phenomenon isn't solely attributable to climate change. But scientists have advised that intense hurricanes are likely to be more frequent due to the warming effect of greenhouse gas emissions – and more likely to reach Europe.

In fact, Ophelia is the first category three strength hurricane ever recorded in the eastern Atlantic.

Not only this, but smoke from wildfires raging in Iberia is likely to have contributed to the haze. The clouds from this scene in Portugal make the UK’s skyscape look almost quaint – and are sisters of deadly blazes that have swept across California, killing at least 38.

Of course it's easier not to think about all this; to distract ourselves with other worries; to blame Brexit and pretend we’re in Blade Runner for an afternoon. But in 2017, unusual weather is no longer the sign of doom to come, it is the doom itself. 

India Bourke is the online editor for the New Statesman's international edition.

Free trial CSS