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The megadrought of 1876-78

15 May 2019 | Science Notes

Yes, there were droughts before SUV's were invented. And they led to famines too, because the world was poorer then and more vulnerable to food shortages. Today a mild dry spell will automatically be called a crisis and blamed on climate change, even though long term records don't show a change in global precipitation over the past century. But the reality is that nature is very capable of inflicting long-lasting droughts, like the one that ravaged Asia, South America and Africa from 1876-78 leading to an estimated 50 million deaths. It should go without saying that since it pre-dates most greenhouse gas emissions it can't be our fault, but given recent comic-book portrayals of a stable and benign climate until 1978 it matters that recent research confirms that this disaster arose due to natural variability.

Through examining a combination of historical records and model simulations, Deepti Singh of Washington State University and his colleagues determined that the drought conditions of 1876-78 arose when a five year cold stretch in the Pacific gave way to a strong El Niño warming in 1877, coupled with high sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. Singh concludes that "Climatic conditions that caused the Great Drought and Global Famine arose from natural variability" and they could happen again. And if it does it will again be a natural occurrence, but we all know who will be blamed.

Did people back then look for a scapegoat? Were a few alleged witches burned on the pyre to try and appease the gods and bring back the rains? Perhaps. So it’s lucky we're so much more sophisticated today and would just sacrifice our prosperity to appease Gaia.

Seriously, if a global megadrought were to happen today the climate pandemonium would be unstoppable. We wouldn't throw witches onto the pyre, we'd throw the entire western world's economy on it. We'd hear confident announcements that this drought was now permanent and emergency greenhouse gas cuts would have to be imposed. (As we did when California experienced drought conditions from 2011-17.) And then the drought would end, as California’s did, and the alarmists would move on to the next panic without ever taking responsibility for the damage they wrought.

Another difference if a global megadrought hit today would be that the death toll would be far smaller. The world is awash in food, trade is far more open, we have far better transportation networks and we’re much more aware of what’s happening around the globe, so a failed harvest on one continent is no longer a death sentence for millions. Prosperity is the great protector against climate-related calamities. Faced with the choice, a world made wealthy through fossil fuel use, even if it’s also made a bit warmer, is far better than a poor world, to say nothing of one where colder conditions threaten the crops as in the 18th century or the 14th. The increasingly radical climate alarmist movement seems to believe the opposite, and we all better hope that they don't get their way even, or especially, if nature throws something nastily dry at us.

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