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Monday, 7 August, 2000, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
It's raining fish!

Heavens above - it rained fish in Norfolk on Sunday. Yet for all the biblical resonance of the tale, there is a rational explanation for this rare phenomenon, writes BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

The doomsayers would have had a field day in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, on Sunday - the heavens opened, unleashing a storm of sprats upon the seaside resort.

Yet the residents need not fear plagues of locusts, the death of their first-born and other threats of biblical proportions.

The storm of two-inch fish was likely to be the latest example of a rare - but not unheard of - weather phenomenon.

Freak storms
Pliney the Elder mentioned storms of frogs and fish in the first century
1841: Live fish fell from the sky in Aberdare
1864: A Quebec farmer found a frog inside a hailstone
1930: An 8-inch turtle fell during a Mississippi storm
1976: Olympic yachts pelted by live maggots
At least four Scottish fish-falls recorded in the past 20 years - in Fife, Ross-shire, Perthshire and Argyll
Falling frogs reported in Llanddewi, Wales, in 1996, and two years later in Croydon, south London
Reports of falling fish, frogs, tomatoes and even coal date back to the dawning of the millennium. The phenomenon also featured in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film Magnolia, which went further and explained how an underwater diver - a frogman - could also fall from the sky.

Weather experts explain the freak showers thus - powerful updrafts generated during thunderstorms form mini-tornadoes, which can suck up and carry away debris in its path.

If the storm brews out at sea, or crosses a river, the tornado can scoop up water and small fish swimming close to the surface.

In the Norfolk case, the fish were probably carried along in the storm clouds and dumped when the rain fell.

Met Office spokesman Andy Yeatman said it was quite common for cloud bursts to open and release a hail of fish or frogs.

"It's impossible to say where the fish came from, but often these clouds can be carried a distance of one or two miles."

Ten plagues

It all may be a scientific explanation for the plague of frogs which the Egyptians of the Old Testament experienced.

Two US scientists, Dr John Marr, a former chief epidemiologist, and Dr Curtis Malloy, a medical researcher, certainly think so. They have also explained the 10 plagues of Egypt as a series of linked natural disasters.

According to the Book of Exodus, Moses warned Egypt of divine retribution should the Israelites not be set free. The resulting plagues wiped out the Egyptians' livestock, agriculture and finally their eldest sons.

The scientists found that the first plague - in which the Nile ran red with blood - could have been caused by water-borne organisms called dinoflagellates.


Locusts - one of the more common afflictions
The single-cell creatures release toxins that leave fish bleeding and helpless, and the water undrinkable. The same organisms account for modern-day "red tides" in rivers in Japan and the US.

The poisoned water could also have been the cause of the second and fourth plagues - toads most likely fled the Nile only to die on land, leading to an explosion in the population of flies, their prey.

As for plagues seven and eight, the scientists pointed out that locusts and devastating hailstorms continue to plague the Middle East to this day.

The final blow - the death of the first-born - could have been a direct result of both tradition and attempts to deal with plagues number one to nine.

Any crops surviving the hail and the locusts could well have been hastily harvested and stored while still damp - perfect conditions for growing deadly toxins.

As the favoured offspring, the eldest child would have been fed two helpings of any food going, thus getting a double dose of the contaminated grain.

It all makes the falling sprats of Norfolk less than appetising.

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04 Jan 00 | UK
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