The Weather in Istanbul
The motifs of Turkish fairy tales operate along precise geographical vectors of amazement. Familiar narrative elements recur from place to place, as the folklorist Pertev Boratav observed, but ‘la dose du merveilleux diminue au fur et à mesure qu’on s’éloigne des villes.’ The closer you get to the city, the more fantastical the details of the tale. If by the outskirts of Istanbul a story boasts a dragon and a giant, in the countryside they spoke merely of a large snake and perhaps a man who ate more than his neighbours.
The same tendency to exaggeration appears to stalk historical accounts of the city’s weather. In a letter from 1831 the US ambassador David Porter described an ice storm (‘I cannot call it hail’) as if the heavens had frozen over and fallen in pieces to the earth. The Ottoman chroniclers Selaniki and Solakzade both tell of storms that made it seem as if the world were ending. According to the Köppen climate classification, Istanbul is a ‘temperate’ city, but the language is continually overflowing its bounds. In winter, snow drifts stop the Sultan attending mosque on Friday; in summer, droughts bring congregations to the city squares – freak weather can prevent prayer and occasion it. In both 1621 and 1954 the Bosphorus was said to freeze over, something almost as unlikely as its happening to hell.
It’s tempting to rationalise all this as an artefact of observation. Turks are not British about the weather, generally having more important things to talk about, but people from Istanbul do express strong opinions about the winds and their mood-altering properties. You’re not supposed to swim before the first watermelon rind of the season is seen floating by. Istanbul’s weather is made more spectacular, like everything else, by the city’s topography. The European and Asian halves stare each other down across a wide waterway and make the city seem like an amphitheatre; one which comes to life, like Shakespeare’s Tempest, at the ‘noise of thunder and lightning heard’.
My own impulse is to believe every word. I have watched tornados whip at the waters of the Golden Horn like a hose (which is what, in Turkish, they are called). Last summer, gloopy marine mucilage or sea snot bloomed across 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 suffocated marine life and hemmed Istanbulites in at the shoreline where normally they would go to look out.
On 27 July 2017, the sky turned black in the late afternoon and rained hailstones of terrifying size and violence. You can find compilations of its scariest excesses on YouTube: hailstones splashing into flood water like explosives, office doors spinning like a blender. The storm brought the outside in. I remember running home to what I thought was shelter to find our window panes broken by a vortex of debris whose ranks they soon swelled. I didn’t imagine it; I still have the glazier’s receipt. And the mineral-wool cladding on the houses in my parents’ neighbourhood remains pock-marked as if from shrapnel. Now people across the city lash rugs to their car roofs whenever hail is forecast; a turning of the inside out.
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 year before that. Most of them fell under the designation ‘storm/cyclone’, according to the MGM, the national meteorological agency. I can’t remember any tornados from my Istanbul childhood, though I read now that they happened – rarely, and offshore. The first one I saw was courtesy of the MGM’s Hollywood studio namesake. In the pastiche of The Wizard of Oz that a magpie Turkish film industry produced in the 1970s, the switch from black and white to Technicolor is transposed into a different idiom: when the twister hits, the action shifts fully into cartoon.
Third in the MGM’s 2021 rankings, after ‘heavy rain/flood’, is ‘severe hail’, which is prone to underreporting. It strikes suddenly over small areas, and is quick to melt away. To catalogue it, meteorologists depend on local news reports no more authoritative than David Porter’s 1831 description of hailstones the size of two fists, and there is very little standardisation across hailstone vernaculars. Where US datasets for severe hail use a gauge running from dime and quarter up to golf ball, in Turkey they are compared most often to hazelnuts, walnuts and eggs.
Climate change in Istanbul is destabilising the usefulness of its own forms of measurement. Dumps of domestic and industrial waste have made the watermelon-rind method of marking the start of summer redundant: most people are no longer inclined to jump in. It isn’t many years since neighbours would gather, unbidden, to swim out from the jetties of grand wooden houses on the Bosphorus. Now the houses are gated and bathers confine themselves to small caesuras in the shoreline left as fire breaks. The people who live on the water have built swimming pools.
The MGM offers caches of certainty. You can consult 27 data sets which allow longitudinal comparison both across Turkey’s 81 provinces and internationally. They derive from indices the World Climate Research Programme introduced to make it easier to track extremes. They confirm that the length of Istanbul’s summer doubled between 1960 and 2010. This is a much more dramatic shift than in Ankara, where they cleave to the view that what’s dramatic in Istanbul is the people. The number of nights classed as ‘tropical’ has doubled, too. That may sound like good news for the tourists the city doesn’t need any more of, but it masks the unpleasantness of the heat; none of these data consider the effect of humidity. Standardised metrics have their own shortcomings, and these ones are now dropping out of use.
Istanbul’s new temperature settings have brought no corresponding extension to the growing season; over five decades the data show a flat trend-line which conceals erratic swings. For those who live and eat here, the only thing that’s increased is unpredictability. Yet even to speak of an Istanbul growing season sounds anachronistic, since so many of the bostans, or neighbourhood market gardens, that once localised food production in the city have been built over.
Elements of Turkish stories may be present in other traditions, Boratav writes, but their particular combination and the circumstances of their formation is unique. So it is alarming but not unusual that Turkey’s mean annual temperature last year was 1.4 degrees hotter than the thirty-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 fall elsewhere, but in the metropolis with the least green space of forty global cities tracked by the World Cities Culture Forum, the human toll is correspondingly greater. Many cities have two airports, but not many have felled six thousand hectares of forest to build a third the size of Manhattan. Probably there are other places where an economy designed to serve the construction industry has impoverished everyone else; I don’t know. In local stories, Boratav says, the ruler’s will tends to be stymied more often than elsewhere. That part is harder to believe.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.