The Great Storm of 14 November, 1854 - How Big and How Often?


By Mark Conrad, 2000.


Just what was the Storm of 14 November that caused so much misery? Firstly, was it really a hurricane, as many contemporaries referred to it? The Great Soviet Encyclopedia states that winter storms in the Black Sea are from continental polar air masses, bringing heavy precipitation. This indeed sounds like the Storm, which brought rain, sleet, and snow.  Modern meteorologists, on the other hand, reserve the term hurricane for tropical cyclones that only arise in tropical waters and which rapidly lose strength over land or cold water, since their energy is drawn from warm surface water. Several maps I have seen that show the world's hurricane areas do not include the Black Sea, so references to the Storm of 14 November as a "hurricane" are not correct in a strict sense. Still, the term persists, as seen by Lloyd's List on 30 November 1993 referring to "Hurricane closes Novorossiisk." (Novorossiisk is in the northeast corner of the Black Sea.) Perhaps this is because the Beaufort Wind Scale, devised in 1805, defines a hurricane by just wind speed and concomitant damage, and not by the characteristic meteorological origin required by today's meteorologists. The relevant Beaufort force numbers are:  


Force 8: Fresh Gale, 39-46 mph winds; small branches break off trees, walking is very difficult.


Force 9: Strong Gale, 47-54 mph winds; branches break, slight damage to buildings, shingles blown off.


Force 10: Whole Gale, 55-63 mph winds; some trees blown down, considerable damage to buildings.


Force 11: Storm, 64-74 mph; widespread damage to trees and buildings.


Force 12: Hurricane, 75+ mph; extreme destruction; severe and extensive damage. 


By using the Beaufort Scale and reports from November, 1854, it may be possible to gain an idea of how strong the Storm of 14 November actually was.    


Henry Clifford (Letters and Sketches from the Crimea) wrote that although General Buller's Bell tent collapsed, his own tent was kept standing throughout the storm. Clifford also refers to a ruined house that nevertheless kept out the snow and rain during the storm.  


Temple Godman (Letters Home from the Crimea) wrote that in a few minutes every hut was leveled. He also noted that in the Turkish camp "hardly a tent" was left standing.


John Sweetman's biography of Lord Raglan records that not only did the British commander-in-chief's house withstand the storm with little damage, but also the adjacent stables and sheds.


A French report translated by W.S. Curtis (The War Correspondent Vol. 17 No. 4) stated that all large tents were flattened and huts were crushed. These seem to be in distinction to "houses, sheds, and stables" which were "less badly treated."  The only tents remaining standing were the Turkish tents.


An officer of the 46th Foot (The Murder of a Regiment) recorded that nearly every tent on the plateau was down.


Edward Hodge ('Little Hodge') stated that the storm "blew down nearly all the tents in the brigade."  


Anthony Sterling (The Highland Brigade in the Crimea) wrote that all tents fell in about three minutes after the storm struck.  He also makes an interesting observation that the local houses had roofs with loose tiles, and he supposed them able to withstand the Crimean storms with which the residents were familiar, and that such storms would not be of a very severe sort.  


Kinglake noted that tents fell, trees were torn up by their roots and houses were unroofed. He also quoted French authorities to say that maximum wind velocity "reached to nearly a mile in the minute" (i.e. nearly 60mph, although Kinglake's note in the back of the relevant volume reveals that what the French recorded was 52mph).  


On the Russian side, reports dwelt more on the damage to the allies' camp and ships than to how the storm affected themselves, but Dubrovin (Vostochnaia voina) ennumerates some specific damage: in Sevastopol the old warehouse of the Engineer Department was flattened, trees were broken, tiles and iron shingles were blown off roofs "like sheets of writing paper," and in Simferopol the roofs were blown off the governor's house, the building of the nobles' assembly, and the central grain storehouse. Additionally, on the south coast of the Crimea, half the roof of the tsar's Oriand mansion was blown away. In Berdyansk, far to the northeast, some 46 boats of various sizes were thrown up on shore, the wharf itself was destroyed, and the town square flooded.    


In Sevastopol Bay, the Russians had sunk a line of ships to block the entrance, and several sources state that during the storm one of these, the Silistria, broke up and had to be replaced. However, a report from Vice-Admiral Nakhimov dated 30 October 1854 (11 November Western calendar) says that after "yesterday's fresh wind" the Silistria had broken up, so this was not caused by our Storm of 14 November. Dubrovin wrote that the steamer Gromonosets was thrown up on shore. Alabin (Pokhodnye Zapiski 1853-54-55-56) wrote that old sailors of the Black Sea Fleet said the storm was unprecedented, and Totleben (Defense de Sebastopol) reported longtime inhabitants of Sevastopol as saying the same.  


Judgement must be subjective, since one must attempt to distinguish among "slight," "considerable," and "widespread" damage, which are the criteria for classification using the Beaufort Scale. Still, I believe that all the above makes a good case for the Storm of 14 November being a gale of either Force 9 or 10. 


If the 14 November Storm was indeed such a gale, how often did such gales occur?  In other words, how true were Russian statements that the Storm had no similar predecessor in living memory?  And were the allies the unlucky victims of unusual weather, or should they have been more prepared? Useful data was found in Climates of the Soviet Union by Paul Lydolph (Volume 7 of World Survey of Climatology, Elsevier Scientific Publishing, 1977). Here it is reported that the "lowland Crimea experiences 33 m/sec [74 mph, i.e. almost true hurricane velocity] winds once in 20 years." (I do not consider it quite relevant that at the same time, coastline cliff edges at certain spots in the Crimea record 118 mph once in 20 years.) A Greenpeace climate database (Internet website describes an unusually severe storm in 1993 that sank seven ships near Novorossiisk, and notes that such a storm last occured at Novorossiisk in 1964, almost thirty years before. Lastly, a scientific paper written by the Ukraine Marine Hydrophysical Institute references actual storms at Sevastopol itself in 1980 and 1987 in which winds reached between 45 and 55mph ( http://www.imbc.r/biblio_serv/medcst/X0204_147.html). All this leads me to think that a Force 9 or 10 gale might be expected perhaps once a decade, and a Force 11 storm once in twenty years.  I must conclude that the Russian statements that the Storm was unprecedented to be exaggerated.