A tornado hits the Black Sea. Photo © imageBROKER/Alamy
The motifs of Turkish fairy tales operate according to precise geographical vectors of wonder. Familiar narrative elements recur from place to place, as folklorist Pertev Boratav has observed, but “the dose of the marvelous diminishes the farther one gets from the cities.” The closer you get to the city, the more fantastic the story details. If in the suburbs of Istanbul a story boasts of a dragon and a giant, in the countryside they speak only of a large snake and perhaps of a man who ate more than his neighbors.
The same tendency towards exaggeration seems to hound historical accounts of the city’s climate. In an 1831 letter, United States Ambassador David Porter described an ice storm (“I cannot call it hail”) as if the sky had frozen over and crashed to earth. The Ottoman chroniclers Selaniki and Solakzade both recount storms that made the world seem to be ending. According to the Köppen climate classification, Istanbul is a “temperate” city, but the language continually overflows its limits. In winter, snowdrifts prevent the sultan from going to the mosque on Fridays; in the summer, droughts bring congregations to city squares – abnormal weather can prevent prayer and occasion it. In 1621 and 1954, the Bosphorus would have frozen over, something almost as unlikely as it would happen in hell.
It’s tempting to rationalize all of this as an artifact of observation. Turks aren’t British about the weather, usually having more important things to discuss, but Istanbul residents have strong opinions about the winds and their mind-altering properties. You are not supposed to swim until the first watermelon rind of the season is seen floating. Istanbul’s climate is made more spectacular, like everything else, by the city’s topography. The European and Asian halves look at each other across a wide waterway and make the city look like an amphitheater; one that comes to life, like Shakespeare’s Stormto the “sound of thunder and lightning heard”.
My own impulse is to believe every word. I saw tornadoes lashing the waters of the Golden Horn like a pipe (that’s what they are called in Turkish). Last summer, gloopy marine mucilage or sea snot bloomed in the Sea of Marmara, around which a third of Turkey’s economic activity and as many of its people are based. Like an oil spill, it smothered marine life and locked Istanbulites on the shore where they would normally seek.
On July 27, 2017, the sky darkened in the late afternoon and rained down hailstones of terrifying size and violence. You can find compilations of its scariest excesses on YouTube: hailstones splashing through water like explosives, office doors spinning like a blender. The storm brought the outside in. I remember running to what I thought was shelter to find our windows shattered by a vortex of debris which they quickly swelled. I did not imagine it; I still have the glazier’s bill. And the mineral wool siding of the houses in my parents’ neighborhood remains pockmarked like shrapnel. Now, residents across the city lay down mats on their car roofs whenever there is hail; a reversal from within.
There were more than a thousand extreme weather events in Turkey last year, breaking the previous year’s record, which broke the record set the previous year. Most of them fell under the “storm/cyclone” designation, according to MGM, the national weather agency. I don’t remember any tornadoes from my childhood in Istanbul, although I read now that they happened – rarely and offshore. The first one I saw was courtesy of MGM’s Hollywood studio namesake. In pastiche of The Wizard of Oz that a magpie Turkish film industry produced in the 1970s, the shift from black and white to Technicolor is transposed into a different idiom: when the twister hits, the action shifts fully into cartoon.
Third in MGM’s 2021 ranking, after ‘heavy rain/flooding’, is ‘heavy hail’, which is subject to under-reporting. It hits small areas suddenly and melts quickly. To catalog it, meteorologists depend on local reports no more authoritative than David Porter’s 1831 description of two-fist-sized hailstones, and there is very little standardization in hailstone vernaculars. While US severe hail datasets use a gauge ranging from dime to quarter to golf ball, in Turkey they are most often compared to hazelnuts, walnuts and eggs.
Climate change in Istanbul destabilizes the usefulness of its own forms of measurement. Domestic and industrial waste dumps have rendered the watermelon rind method of signaling the start of summer superfluous: most people are no longer inclined to jump in it. large wooden houses on the Bosphorus. From now on, the houses are fenced and bathers are limited to small breaks in the shore left as a firewall. People who live on water have built swimming pools.
MGM offers caches of certainty. You can consult 27 datasets that allow a longitudinal comparison both between the 81 provinces of Turkey and internationally. They are derived from indices introduced by the World Climate Research Program to facilitate the monitoring of extremes. They confirm that the length of summer in Istanbul doubled between 1960 and 2010. This is a much more dramatic change than in Ankara, where they cling to the idea that what is dramatic in Istanbul is is the people. The number of nights classified as “tropical” also doubled. This may sound like good news for tourists the city no longer needs, but it masks the inconvenience of the heat; none of these data take into account the effect of humidity. Standardized metrics have their own shortcomings, and these are no longer used.
Istanbul’s new temperature settings have brought no corresponding extension to the growing season; over five decades, the data shows a flat trend line that hides erratic fluctuations. For those who live and eat here, the only thing that increases is the unpredictability. Yet even talking about a growing season in Istanbul seems anachronistic, because so many bostans, or neighborhood market gardens, on which food production once localized in the city have been built.
Elements of Turkish stories may be present in other traditions, writes Boratav, but their particular combination and the circumstances of their formation are unique. It is therefore alarming, but not unusual, that Turkey’s average annual temperature last year was 1.4 degrees above the 30-year average, just as there are other countries – five of them – whose climate policies are also rated by the Climate Action Tracker as “critically”. insufficient’. Torrential rains are falling elsewhere, but in the metropolis with the fewest green spaces among forty global cities tracked by the World Cities Culture Forum, the human toll is all the heavier. Many cities have two airports, but few have cut down six thousand acres of forest to build one-third the size of Manhattan. There are probably other places where an economy designed to serve the construction industry has made everyone poorer; I do not know. In local histories, Boratav says, the ruler’s will tends to be hampered more often than elsewhere. This part is harder to believe.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.