Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > How bad can an El Niño be? This bad.

Oct 29, 2014

How bad can an El Niño be? This bad.

tags: Science,Weather,El Niño

"The 1997–98 El Niño observed by TOPEX/Poseidon. The white areas off the tropical coasts of South and North America indicate the pool of warm water. " (Wikipedia)

A paleoclimate scientist reports that the fall of some empires may in part have been due to a weather phenomenon, El Niño. At a meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing Lonnie G. Thompson, a professor at Ohio State University, noted that the weather system changes associated with El Niño occurred at the moment that the Mayan and Inca empires began to collapse.  “In climate, I think it’s remarkable that ... in ice fields on both sides of the Pacific, there are recording of major droughts in written histories in terms of major social unrest,” he observed.

Central America is thought to be particularly susceptible to El Niño effects, but other areas have also suffered.  A particular problem for humans is that an El Niño system brings about rapid changes in the environment, so rapid people find it difficult to adapt in time.

Joel Shurkin, a science journalist who has taught at Stanford University, draws attention to the work of Thompson in an article published on the website of InsideScience. Shrunken notes that scientists have even blamed El Niño on the influenza epidemic of 1918:

The connection to the flu pandemic goes back to 2010 when Benjamin Giese at Texas A&M University in College Station reported that a review of centuries of El Niño records showed that the 1918-1919 occurrence was unique. It was strong in the central Pacific but oddly milder along the coast of the Americas.

The location, he wrote, triggered a severe drought in India when the monsoons failed, and 18 million Indians died. The flu coincided with the public health emergency there and spread into Europe and America.

Thompson pointed out that 1918 was not just the year of the flu but the end of World War I and several political upheavals, including the Russian Revolution.

In 1781, the monsoon also failed and 600,000 Indians starved to death. The same year, black swan events devastated Australia, Egypt, Mexico and the Caribbean, Thompson said.

No one is saying that the changes in the weather are wholly responsible for these events.  That would be reductionist.  But they are suggesting that historians take the weather more into account than they have in the past. 

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