The Aberfan coal disaster was a distinctively Welsh tragedy

Miners search for survivors in Aberfan in October 1966. Image: Getty.

On October 21, 1966, a coal tip on the hillside above the town of Aberfan in south Wales collapsed, creating a tidal wave of slurry that descended on to houses and a primary school below.  Some144 people were killed, 116 of whom were children.

Across the world, there was a sense of shock and horror; a disaster fund quickly raised £1.75m to help the community. Many also wrote letters of sympathy, some 50,000 of which survive today. The writings show how mothers who had lost children in accidents or illness and people from other coal mining communities felt particularly touched by the Welsh disaster. People with Welsh relatives, backgrounds or even just holiday memories wrote of the warmth of the nation and its people.

Media coverage at the time contributed to the idea that this was a Welsh event rather than purely local one, partly because it needed to describe where Aberfan was. But newsreels and other reports added to this by employing Welsh narrators, choral music and references to the nation’s tragic history of mining accidents.

For a few, the events had a political edge, and the disaster took place at a time when Welsh nationalism was beginning to become a serious political force. In parliament, Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru’s newly-elected MP, claimed that the government’s response would have been stronger had the tip collapsed on Hampstead, in London, or Eton.

The security of Labour’s hold on south Wales and the government’s shameful marginalisation of the village’s needs after the disaster meant he was probably quite right. Indeed, the disaster played a key role in convincing some in Wales that both the nationalised coal industry and Labour governance were no longer operating in the interests of the working-class communities they were supposed to represent.

This did not mean they saw Welsh nationalism as the solution, and Evans’ claim that the disaster might not have happened at all had Wales had its own coal board was less convincing. Nonetheless, there continues to be people who see the disaster as another example of English mismanagement of Wales.


Cultural significance

More common than interpreting Aberfan through the lens of Welsh nationalism is a continuing sense that the disaster is a part of a distinct national history. Even the Welsh national football squad visited the memorial garden in October, a recognition of both their own and the disaster’s cultural significance to the Welsh nation.

Such gestures are more than simply the product of Welsh national identity. In a small and mobile nation, it is not difficult to find people whose relatives lived in Aberfan or were among the hundreds who went there to assist in the rescue operation. Similarly, there are thousands upon thousands of Welsh people with personal or family connections to the coal industry, and for them the disaster is not simply something that happened in another time and another place. It is part of their own family history.

The disaster also sums up the schizophrenic relationship Welsh society has with its coal mining heritage. At one level, there is an immense popular pride in the work miners undertook and the sacrifices they endured. There is also a recognition that it was coal that made modern Wales. Without it, communities such as Aberfan would not have existed at all. Indeed, the knowledge that it was their labour that created the waste above the village added guilt to the grief felt by some bereaved fathers.

1909 report of the death of a child in a Rhondda tip slide.

Coal’s community price

Aberfan was just one example of the huge environmental and human cost that coal extracted, and which represented the other side of coal’s significance for the Welsh people. Mining polluted landscapes and, as a 1909 news report showed, 1966 was not even the first time a coal tip slipping had killed a child in Wales.

Nor was Aberfan even close to being the deadliest accident experienced by the industry in Wales. Communities across the coalfield suffered pit disasters; in 1913 an explosion at Senghenydd, near Caerphilly, killed as many 439 men and boys. By the 1960s safety underground had improved, but in that decade alone 429 miners were killed in accidents in south Wales. Aberfan was, of course, different to nearly all other mining accidents in Wales, befalling mostly innocent children at school not those in the pits, but the tragedy it evoked was all too familiar.

The Aberfan disaster led to a gradual but significant programme of clearing land given over the colliery waste heaps and the tragedy played a part in the greening of the mining valleys again. But coal has not yet been consigned to the past. Nothing has replaced the scale of jobs that it created and Aberfan looms close in Welsh memories because large parts of Wales have yet to find a new economic future.

Coal mining itself might be gone but the economic impact of the failure to replace it is everywhere in the south Wales valleys. Just as Aberfan was let down by the government in the 1960s, it, and mining communities across Wales, continue to feel let down by the authorities. The tragedy of coal is multifaceted, and that makes Aberfan as much a part of the Welsh present as the Welsh past.The Conversation

Martin Johnes is a reader in history and classics at Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.