Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 11: Effects of Natural Disasters on the Unborn

Did any of your ancestors suffer from trauma as a result of a devastating natural event?

Twenty years ago, many parts of Quebec, Canada suffered through an ice storm that knocked out power and paralyzed whole communities. It was also felt in the neighbouring provinces of Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and the US states of New York and Maine. People who were affected still vividly remember the disaster in which 1,000 electrical transmission towers and over 17,000 utility poles were toppled, not to mention the millions of trees lost.
A woman walks past a downed hydro pylon near St-Constant, Que. after one of the worst ice storms to hit Canada struck eastern Ontario and Quebec in January 1998; photo credit: Robert Galbraith/CP photo (downloaded from Global News: Looking back at the Ice Storm of 1998)

Over 3,500,000 people were without power for several days in the coldest part of the winter season. Over 800,000 had to leave their homes to seek relief in community shelters or to stay with family or friends. Thirty-five Canadians died. I won’t go into detail here, but descriptions of the event and how people coped can be found in many articles written just after the event and more recently here: January 1998 North American ice storm; the Great Ice Storm of 1998; Looking back

Freezing rain in the Quebec region is not uncommon. Montreal has such events 12 to 17 times a year with between 45 and 65 total hours of rain. Snow produced at high levels of the atmosphere drop through warmer zones, turn to rain and then spread out over the cold ground, collecting and freezing on every surface. On 4 January 1998, a large low-pressure system stalled over the Great lakes and directed warm, moist air from the Gulf Coast toward the St. Lawrence valley. A coincident high-pressure system was present over Labrador keeping very cold air near the surface of the region. Another strong high-pressure system was anchored over the Atlantic region preventing migration of the two systems to the west from moving. The “perfect” conditions resulted in several inches of rain and consequent large accumulations of ice over 80 hours.

Map showing the accumulation of freezing rain (from Wikipedia: January 1998 North American ice storm

Can there be any doubt that many individuals were traumatized by this brush with a cold death?

Now a generation later, results of studies of people involved – especially those women pregnant at the time or who gave birth during or just after the storm – are being made public. Some of these research projects have reached the national news: 20 years later…, Ice Storm relived

Several Montreal-area researchers at Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University set up a study called Project Ice Stormto study the effects of in utero exposure to varying levels of prenatal maternal stress resulting from an independent stressor on the children’s development from birth through childhood.” Nearly 100 families participated in the project which followed the children through home visits and the use of questionnaires to teachers and parents. The researchers found that the experiences of the mothers affected a whole host of things in their children: IQ, obesity, insulin secretion and their immune system.

The authors report that, “To date, we have obtained significant effects of prenatal maternal stress in every area of development that we have examined. Extrapolating our findings to more severe events, such as war and other forms of natural and man-made disaster, the strong effects we find may possibly be multiplied in other contexts.”

The effects of the 1998 storm left lasting memories on those who lived through it but apparently also on the DNA of children born afterward (see 2014 article, DNA Methylation Signatures Triggered…). Data from the study have shown that “Prenatal maternal stress results in lasting, broad and functionally organized DNA methylation signature in several tissues in offspring. By using a natural disaster model, we can infer that the epigenetic effect found in Project Ice Storm are due to objective levels of hardship experienced by the pregnant woman rather than to her level of sustained distress.” The extent of the maternal stress and impacts on the fetuses was partly dependent on such things as the number of days without power and the damage to the mothers’ homes.

So, I wondered, before the day of scientific, psychological and other such confined studies of specific events, how would we know what effects such major natural disasters might have had on our ancestors in the past. We do have evidence that many surviving families suffered through economic and mental problems following major floods or storms where family members, especially the main bread-winners, were lost.

What genealogists have perhaps not recorded, or have not been able to find, were the personal histories and states of mind of those left behind after fathers, mothers or children were lost. Or, at least, they may not have recognized how lives were changed or mental states developed of those still in the womb. Following the lives of such children might show how or whether people were affected physically or mentally by natural disasters from which their mothers may have been subjected.


Cao-Lei, L., Massart, R., Suderman, M. J., Machnes, Z., Elgbeile, G., Laplante, D. P., Szyf, M. & King, S. (2014). DNA Methylation Signatures Tirggered by Prenatal Maternal Stress Exposure to a Natural Disaster: Project Ice Storm. Published online 19 September 2014 at

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Genealogy Holiday Sales Announcements and New Year’s Resolutions

If you read as many blogs as I do, you will no doubt have been amazed (and somewhat annoyed) with the many sites that, over and before the holidays, going back to the American Thanksgiving period, passed on advertising and promotions to readers – informing them how they could acquire all manner of genealogy-related products and services. We are used to being bombarded with commercial ads from local department stores and electronic outlets. I was not quite prepared for the barrage of entreaties from bloggers and commercial genealogy suppliers doing the same thing.

If there was any doubt that genealogy has become a business, then the emails of the past couple of months has dispelled that notion.

There are/were some good deals out there but was there really the need to send out daily messages (actually multiple messages daily by some people) to remind us of our good fortune? And why does everyone have to wait until a special occasion to offer people a deal. I found a few promotions pretty much the same as what I receive on a regular basis, with free days to search certain databases of commercial sites or special prices on publications. Which begs the question, how is it then a Special Deal?

What annoyed me was the profusion of messages from serious bloggers, whose ideas and comments I generally enjoy and learn from, strongly oriented to sales pitches. I suspect they make a few dollars if readers click on their links and buy something – and that’s ok, I’ve looked at the idea myself – but – People – enough is enough already!

Now, seemingly, everyone lately wants to get on the New Year’s resolution bandwagon to stimulate researchers to (re)organize their files and renew their resolve to work in more orderly or effective ways. I think that message gets out regularly. At least, I often see it come up in blog posts throughout the year. It’s why I read so many genealogy blogs. January is just another month. The idea of doing good (or better) research never gets old. We don’t need to have a special day (January 1st) to finally take the bull by the horns and improve our ways.

If you need to make a resolution to lose weight or stop smoking then it likely won’t be very effective. The same applies to genealogy research. Helpful ideas about research methods – normally provided in abundance by most bloggers – are the most effective ways to help people. And those are appreciated on a continuing basis, not through being incentivized to purchase the latest software or book or scanning tool. 

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

In the beginning...

This past week, being the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, there have been many blog posts and other online comments about starting again, or at least, if not actually starting anew, then beginning with a new purpose and strategy to find out about all those elusive ancestors. None of us are going to begin our research again – we have too much already accomplished – though we might take a crack at reviewing how we have been doing it or resolve (there’s a nice New Year’s phrase) to be more attentive to the sources we use as well as look at alternative methods of finding pertinent information.

Everyone seems to be gung ho on discovering new data or ways to find new data. I suppose, in a way, that is a beginning of sorts. But it is not like we all weren’t doing some good work during the past year or that it was all in vain. January 1st just seems like a good date to reflect on past genealogical activities and renew efforts to do even better during the next 365 days to find the people who began our families, assuming that is possible.

In terms of human evolution we don’t really know when the beginning was. The species Homo sapiens (and thus the families of this group) emerged from Homo erectus about 300,000 years ago. Sapiens is the Latin name for "wise" (Home sapiens = wise man, deduced from his apparent intelligence compared to previous species) and was introduced in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus.
Schematic representation of the emergence of H. sapiens from earlier species of Homo. from
Homo erectus rose from the genus, Australopithecine, in Africa some 2.5 million years ago. So human families go back a long way, not to the beginning of the Earth, over 4.5 billion years ago, but still quite a significant time period. DNA studies pretty much confirm this historical line making us all related in some sense. The time of humans on Earth is miniscule compared to its total history and I discussed in a 7 February 2017 post, Keeping It All in Perspective.

For many if not most genealogists the “beginning” might date only from the Protestant Reformation, in the early 16th century. Around this time many if not most countries in Europe (the Modern World of the time) began diligently keeping records of births, marriages and deaths (BMD). I wrote about that in a post on the Pharos Blog, titled Your Oldest Document. We can really only define the beginning of our own families on the basis of written text showing the names of our forebears. And we can really only properly identify those as our forebears through continuous records extending back from present day.

There may still be some BMD records kept in Catholic Church archives (or in the repositories of other religions) possibly in individual parish churches, but few go back any further that the protestant registers. They were either destroyed in the many conflicts between states over the centuries or left to rot in the basements of churches or civic buildings. Some researchers believe that there are medieval-aged records that can or might identify people but tying them to specific families is problematic.

So are we beginning again in 2018? Not so much! Are we taking stock of how we do things? Probably! Can we find the very first family in our line? Nope! Hope springs eternal that we will get further back in our ancestral parade in the coming year, though.