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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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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