Climate change and migrations

With fires raging and people fleeing to the sea in Australia, and evacuations in the Philippines in the face of volcanoes, I think about all the instances of weather and climate that have changed the shape of world populations. The few that I know about are certainly samples of many.

I started thinking about this when I read that half of the European immigrants to North America from Plymouth to the formation of the U.S. were indentured servants. Europe was caught in the throes of the Little Ice Age. It was cold and crops failed or yielded little. Fathers would take their sons and daughters to the dock and turn them over to a ship’s captain. The captain would sail them to the “new” world and recover their passage with their sale to waiting farmers and settled and prosperous families.

In my research, I read Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming, a history of population ebbs and flows with planet warming circa 800-1400. The Vikings went across the seas, colonizing Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. European populations swelled as farmers grew wheat in Norway and wine grapes in England. The moldboard plow was invented to turn up new ground with the exploding populations.

But in the Americas at that time, indigenous populations were decimated by heat and drought. Half the people of the California coast died as their acorn-based diet died. The Mayan cities, reliant on sophisticated irrigation systems, collapsed with drought and the people scattered and survivors scratched livings in small villages. And I think this was the time that the very sophisticated society at Chaco Canyon collapsed. People dispersed; we have no record of where they went, and how many died in getting there.

The mound cities, including Cahokia, near present day city of St. Louis, and circa 1100 c.e., larger and more sophisticated than London with 10,000-40,000 people, grew and collapsed during the Warming—overuse of resources? Floods? Climate? Not sure.

The planet cooled, populations in Europe shrunk rapidly with the plague, and the generations of survivors literally shrunk in size. Charlemagne, King of the Franks in the late 700s and early 800s—the very beginning of that Great Warming period, commanded an army of six-footers. Napoleon, who ruled, fought, and lost with an army of soldiers of five-footers, had his run towards the end of what is called the Little Ice Age, the period from roughly 1300-1850.

Which is of course a period that encompasses the colonization of the Americas by Europeans (and the demise of the Vikings settlements in Newfoundland and Greenland). North America apparently recovered with the cooling. Population, including that of the Mound cities and the Pacific coast, might have fallen rapidly, but corn and agriculture had moved from Central America north; agriculture, and very sophisticated hunting, fishing, and gathering, served populations well. As crops and agriculture moved, so did people. And until modern genetics, we best traced that with linguistics. John Wesley Powell commissioned a language study in the late 1800s at the Smithsonian, and came up with 45 or 48 language families in North America. Alvin Josephy started with languages in The Indian Heritage of America, published in 1968, long before modern genetics. The language maps show Athabaskan—or dene—languages in present day Canada, the North Pacific Coast, and in the Southwest, with Navajo and Apache among others. It would be interesting to correlate Athabaskan languages and peoples from north to the south, and the Algonquins from the Northeast to the Pacific coast with climate and weather events.

There were of course conflicts and wars too. But even wars can own to climate. There is now good evidence that the turmoil of the Arab Spring and upheavals and eventually war in Syria had to do with drought. Drought chased farming rural people into cities, where jobs and food were scarce for many and created a swelling population ready for any radical change that might mean bread.

Now the people of Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America scurry north, to milder climates where agriculture and industry still thrive. We can blame mass migrations on corruption, mismanagement, overpopulation, and wars, but somewhere in the mix is drought and hunger.

With heat and drought come fire and sporadic flooding of vulnerable lands. With rising tides, more dramatic shifts of rains, snows, and temperatures; with winds, hurricanes, typhoons, fire and flood (add earthquakes and volcanoes), the populations of the world are probably in the beginning of rapid transformations. What parts of Australia will survive—and where will its populations go? How many islands in the Philippines will go under? How long can New Orleans stay above water? How much air conditioning can Phoenix afford? Where will Phoenix—and much of California—get its water as the Colorado gets overtaxed and evaporation sucks its waters? And where will all the people go?

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Fire–and Climate Change

About 700 or 800 years ago—more detailed times and accounts of them are in a book called The Great Warming, by Brian Fagan—California shriveled in drought, and much of it died. Half the live oak trees and half the people who depended on them as a major food source died. One can imagine fire accompanied the years, decades, of drought.

I can’t help thinking about this as I read reports and see pictures and video coverage of the fires in southern and northern California. Beyond today and California, I think about how vulnerable we make ourselves by where we live, and how far we reach for water and food. When my son, who lives in Phoenix, calls to report a temperature of 117 degrees, I think that he and his city could not live without air conditioning and electricity. And I think of how far some people have to reach for electricity—to the shale fields of North Dakota and Canada, to the wind turbines in the Columbia River Gorge, to the stored water behind the Columbia River dams.

But fire, it seems to me, is like a burning truth kernel in this story of interdependence that we humans have created over centuries. Today in California fire and electricity are crossing paths—electrical sparks causing fire; electrical shutoffs trying to stay ahead of the fires.

Fire has always been with us—In World Fire, Stephen J. Pyne argues that we became human when we learned to start and stop—sometimes—fires. Fire was one of the first elements in early cosmologies; it has changed landscapes and scarred and killed life—and generated new life—forever; it has even been, as Pyne points out, used as a weapon.

A recent piece in the New York Times, “A Forecast for a Warming World: Learn to Live With Fire,” centers on the fires in California this week, but talks broadly about fires, and notes that we humans’ current favored building places are at the edge of “wild lands,” in fires’ natural paths. Almost in an aside, the writers, Thomas Fuller and Kendra Pierre-Louis, say that the Forest Service  “notes that Native Americans used prescribed burns to help with food production.”

In pre-colonial times, the tribes of what is now the Northeastern United States used low-intensity burning of their fields to sequester carbon and enhance the growing of corn, beans, squash and the myriad of medicinal and food plants colonial newcomers saw as weeds. In the west of the continent, the Plateau peoples of what are now parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, relied on naturally caused fires and started some of their own to clear underbrush and condition the lands that grew the roots and berries and fed the deer, elk, antelope and birds that sustained them.

Without crediting American Natives, the authors say that

“Before the era of fire suppression, north Georgia around Brawley Mountain used to burn roughly every three to five years…. Those blazes allowed species that could withstand some fire, like the longleaf pine, to proliferate and flourish, shaping local ecosystems… Some of those fires were caused by natural events like lightning; others were caused by human activity… These smaller fires act as a kind of incendiary rake, clearing out grasses, shrubs and other plant matter before they can overgrow to become fuel for bigger, more extreme fires.”

Which is a pretty good description of native use of fire, of “living with fire.” When we get to the crux of things, our hubris in building and living at the edge of wild lands, in fires’ natural paths, and in thinking that we can always suppress fire, can manage and master nature to our human needs, only exacerbates the dangerous conditions brought on by regular cycles of hot and cold, wet and dry. Add climate change…

I’d argue that indigenous peoples who live close to those regular cycles learn how to deal with them, learn to listen to the changes in weather, the needs of plants and animals and the earth itself in their hunting, gathering, farming, and everyday lives.

But that could not help the Indians of California a thousand years ago, or the residents of Chaco Canyon, or the Mayan cities and civilization. They did not have the tools to deal with massive climate change. Do we?

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Cold winter and climate change

I’ve not gone back to look at past winter temperatures and snowfall statistics on Wallowa County, but I know the 40 degrees on the outside thermometer as I write this, and the wind doing the warming, are breaking a month-long cold chill.

“This is the coldest it’s been and the most snow we’ve had in my 20 years living here,” says a friend. And “where is that climate change?” someone asks at the post office. The change deniers like this as much as they don’t like the cold—though I don’t really hear much about that from locals, who are busy dealing with the weather given them, figuring out how to stretch the hay, keep the driveway open, or get to a scheduled airplane departure or pick-up in Boise, Walla Walla, or Lewiston.

I remember 40 years ago learning that some sort of wet cycle had given hope to homesteaders on the County’s north end at the turn of the last century. Then wells went dry and the lucky ones with water bought out their neighbors and consolidated land and water. I heard about 7 year cycles, 30 year cycles, and even 100 year cycles, but nothing about a changing climate.

Polar bear talk and sinking island nations have caught my attention over recent years, but it was only after I started poking around early American history, reading Josephy and Charles Mann and wondering what really drove the first immigrants across the oceans in the early days of European settlement that I began to wonder about climate. What about that Little Ice Age? I thought, and then read about cold and hungry European parents taking their teenage children to the docks, handing them over to a ship’s captain who promised to get them across the sea and into the hands of a wealthy somebody who would indenture them for 3 or 5 or 7 years and then allow them freedom and a chance to feed and clothe themselves and make their own ways in the New World.

I told Al Josephy I needed to know more about the Little Ice Age, and he said that he had had a professor at UC Santa Barbara named Brian Fagan who had written a book about it. Oh—“and dad had him write some stuff for American Heritage in the ‘70s I think.” Then, on a trip to Portland and Powell’s, I found The Great Warming, a book Fagan had written about the period from about 800 to about 1300, which preceded the Little Ice Age, which runs from about 1300 to 1850. I’d start there.

I learned that over half of the pre-American Revolution European immigrants were indentured, fleeing failed crops and cold poverty in the old countries smack in the middle of the Little Ice Age.  And when I looked in an old “Western Civ” textbook that I used in 1962, the Little Ice Age didn’t show up, nor did its predecessor, the Great Warming and the rapid increase in population that accompanied it. Even The Plague, which wiped out maybe half of the European population in the mid-fourteenth century, just as the warming slowed, got only brief mention. History was about kings and queens, religions, writs, constitutions and forms of government, wars and great men, not about changing climate and diseases.

Fagan first tells us that the causes of ancient climate change—which remain contributors to current warming—are difficult to measure. Ocean currents—now named—and sun activity are involved, but just how is still being explored (“El Nino” was not even in the vocabulary as I grew up on the California coast!). He then recounts the Nordic exploration and settlement in Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland; the growing of wine grapes in England and wheat in Norway, and the development of the moldboard plow to turn over new agricultural ground. In Europe, the results of warming seemed sanguine.

But in the Western Hemisphere and in Africa the results were dramatically different. Drought was in fact the largest factor in die-offs of large segments of live oaks and Pacific populations, and in the collapse of Mayan city-states, where sophisticated irrigation systems could not cope.

Fagan’s most striking finding in this warming exploration was its erratic nature: temperatures did not increase in a straight line, but bounced upward relentlessly; rains didn’t come for years, and then came in torrents. The hallmark of climate in that period in the earth’s history—the roughly 500 years beginning about 800—was its erratic, in the short term unpredictable, nature.

So this winter’s snows and cold might—or might not—signal next winter’s warmth and rain. But read Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming for some understanding.

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Disease, religion, and the “here and now”

Smallpox didn’t rate a line in the ‘Western Civilization textbook that I used in 1961—The Course of Civilization, by Strayer, Gatzke, and Harison.  In fact, the Plague, or Black Death, which some now think wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the mid fourteenth century, gets less than a page. Ironically, the disease is credited with preceding and influencing “bloody peasant rebellions…, senseless civil wars,” and “the witchcraft delusion,” in which “innocent men and women were falsely accused of practicing black magic.”
Prior to Alfred Crosby’s linking biology to traditional history, I guess that was par for the course: history was wars and politics; disease was for the biologists and epidemiologists to discover and discuss, and poets to mourn. Mention was brief and, like the Salem Witch Trials, a sideshow left to novelists and preachers to explore.
Even without the plague, life in medieval Europe—for the more than 80 percent who were peasant farmers—was always precarious. If the child made it past the first year or two, self-immunizing against common diseases in the process, life expectancy might be 30 or 40 years. Accidents and infections were rampant.  A year or three of drought or heavy rains brought hunger and sometimes starvation. And the wealthy classes—e.g., nobles and churchmen—fought and enlisted the peasantry to fight—and die—for them.
As the Little Ice Age—roughly 1400-1850—tightened its grip on the old world, thousands ran or were shipped to the new world as indentured servants. Over half of the Europeans who came to North America between 1600 and 1776 came that way. And by 1600, more than half of the indigenous people in North America had already been slain by smallpox, measles, and other maladies mostly sent ahead by Europe’s advance guard of explorers and fishermen. Eurocentric thinking—which saw European tools and religious beliefs as superior to anything “discovered” in America, quickly covered over 30,000 years or more of complex civilizations and histories as white Europeans marched across the continent.
We don’t’ know what life expectancies were among Indian tribes—though it surely varied greatly from tribe to tribe and even continent to continent. And the Little Ice Age and the Great Warming that preceded it took their tolls on the populations in the Americas before European arrival. In the Great Warming, Brian Fagin accounts for huge population losses on the California coast, in the desert southwest, and among the Mayans and pre-Incans. In other words, life for indigenous Americans before the European arrival was precarious too.
Among small and dispersed tribes in areas of great natural resources, as in what is now the Pacific Northwest, it might have been easier to cope with weather and disease before the Europeans. But we know now that these diseases crept in—from the sea, with horse-mounted Indians, with the fur trade—well ahead of the Europeans who carried them. With horses and guns and metal pots came smallpox, measles—and missionaries.
This week’s “aha” moment came when it occurred to me that the Indians and the early white settlers held very similar religious views—or at least “goals” for their religious practices and beliefs. With life expectancy short and a world full of hazards, what religion offered was a bit of power and some solace in dealing with it! Lewis and Clark doctored—and they had guns. The four Indians who went back to St. Lewis to find Clark were looking for some of the white religion’s power. Father Desmet and his Catholic troops among the Flathead wedged their way in with ceremony and similarities—weyakin/angels; baptism/sweat lodge; chapel/long house. But when the Indians were asked to give up their own rather than supplement it with the new, they chased the Catholics off.
And of course white doctor Whitman’s ineffectiveness in dealing with measles led to his Indian death sentence.
There might have been pious Christians who carried real visions of an eternal hereafter, and Indians I’m sure felt that spirits continued after death. How long and in what form seems less vivid. I surmise spiritual presences who might be leaned on with all other religious tools—weyakins, dances and ceremonies—in dealing with the day to day struggles of life. My guess is that for most white settlers looking at high infant death losses and 40 years as old, religion was just such a tool. You did what you could to build a future for offspring—and to acquire goods to enjoy now. And baptized and genuflected and prayed for help. And, Indian or white, if you were a man (yes, my guess is that gender roles on the American frontier were firm and exceptions rare) you might pursue fame, which Indian oral tradition and white books told you did endure.
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Living inside “the warming”

In my last blog I wrote about an interview I came across with Alfred Crosby, historian and author of “The Columbian Exchange.” Crosby said that he had tired of teaching the standard American history of Washington and Jefferson, and, looking for deeper stories of early America, kept running into smallpox. Smallpox led him to an examination of the immense amount of biology that had been left out of the standard historical narrative.
“Why,” the interviewer asked, and Crosby opined that it was probably a matter of habit, that “history” had traditionally been a matter of wars and politics, presidents and kings—and sometimes queens—and the social and political machinations that transfer power from one group, one generation, to the next. Biology—and all that stuff about diseases, plants, animals, bugs and birds going from one half of the world to the other was/is dealt with in another building, another discipline.
Which ties back to our friend Alvin Josephy in a couple of ways. First, in his research on the Nez Perce, Alvin Josephy “ran into” the fur trade; in researching other Patriot Chiefs, he discovered a different American history than he had been taught; and in preparation for The Indian Heritage of America, he found that linguists had much to say about migration patterns and populations.
In my own catching up with Alvin’s ideas on American history and Euro-Indian relations, Europe’s “Little Ice Age” pops up like the fur trade and Crosby’s smallpox. Many of the indentured servants who came to Jamestown and the early colonies were running from (or being sent by worried parents away from ) European droughts and famines. The Norse presence in Greenland and Baffin Bay reversed with the Little Ice Age. The earliest European painters of American Indians seemed so impressed with the size and grandeur of the Indians that Rousseau’s noble savage seems a natural next step. Etc. etc.
So Al Josephy suggested I look up a book by a guy named Brian Fagan that his dad had do some work at American Heritage in the 70s, and that he took a class from at UC Santa Barbara about the same time. I checked it out, and it must have been Mysteries of the Past, a book Fagan co-authored for American Heritage in 1977, that Al was referring to. But I wanted The Little Ice Age, and, as I was in Portland last weekend, ran to Powell’s to find it. It wasn’t on the shelf, but a later Fagan title, The Great Warming, was, and so here I am, inside climate change, following the earth’s warming BEFORE the Little Ice Age.
Norse in Greenland
“Roughly,” between 800 and 1200 A.D., the earth warmed and we got the moldboard plow and agricultural and population expansion in Europe; the Norse sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and sent back huge quantities of walrus ivory); and there were killing droughts on the California coast and in Chaco Canyon. And much more! The striking thing about it all is that the people living “inside” the warming were adapting—and thriving and perishing—decade by decade and year by year. The name—The Medieval Warm Period—was coined less than a century ago.
Within the “warming,” there were wet and dry periods and places. There were enough California acorns stored for two or three years of drought, but a decade or more and oak trees died, and people died or moved inland. Elaborate Mayan reservoirs could handle a few years of drought, but with prolonged warming and drying they failed, and the population dispersed to smaller villages and farms as the great cities died. In Europe warm was accompanied by moisture—often but not always—and grain was grown at ever higher elevations and north latitudes. But not every year!!
 (As a side note, the explorations of ancient climate are incredible and incredibly complex: tree rings, ice cores, vineyard and church records, cemeteries, and on and on.)
The key elements, it seems to me, are how many local populations adapted—by relying on old kinship ties, by moving, by learning new tricks of agriculture and husbandry, and how wildly populations fluctuated during these turbulent times. And, finally, how living inside a long 400 year “trend” provided little opportunity for looking at the whole, and incredible, immediate, demands to find water, food, and shelter “now.”
Do tsunamis and hurricanes and eroding ocean beaches have us—or at least the people immediately involved—doing the same things?  And how difficult is it to be a prophet or forecaster from inside “the warming”?
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