Opinion by Dr. Tim Ball
History is the devil’s scripture. Lord Byron
The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle. Eric Hoffer
History is past politics; and politics present history. John Seeley
The historian looks backward. In the end he also believes backward.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Someone to Blame
The Great Irish Potato famine began in 1845 and had severe social impact for some six years. Historians tell the story in many ways, but most assign blame to a few humans, particularly for failure to deal with the great loss of life and hardships of mass migration. There was a proportionally worse famine in 1741, but that is virtually unknown. Did the 1845 event get more attention because it provided a point of attack for the social atmosphere of the time? Some attributed overall weather conditions and harvest failures for the social unrest that gave rise to Marxism: 1848 is known as the “Year of Revolutions”.
The years 1848 and 2011 both followed poor harvests, a spike in food prices and an industrial recession. What we remember as the Irish Potato Famine was in fact a blight that struck the whole of Western Europe between 1845 and 1846. This was compounded by a devastatingly bad harvest in the latter year. It was impossible to meet the demand of a vastly increased population.
The same environment engendered the ideas of Malthus (Six Essays on population published between 1798 and 1826) and Darwin (Origin of Species published 1859). The quote indicates that parallels are already being made between then (1848) and now (2011). David Archibald posed a similar question in his article, “Two years to a 1740-type event? Will those using global warming for a political agenda switch to the threat of famine due to drought? Will the blame shift from, the rich and powerful causing the event, to their failure to deal with the crisis?
History shows that leadership reaction to crisis is always inadequate. Any chance of a better reaction is in a better understanding of the cause of the crisis – in this case, weather mechanisms. Government’ preparing for warming when cooling is the trend, has already reduced the chances of proper reaction. There is good news; technology has vastly improved our ability to recover after the events.
What caused the failure of the potato crop in 1845? What were the weather conditions for both events? What weather and climate lessons are in the two events? Archibald references Briffa and Jones (2006) conclusion that “climate might vary more than is commonly accepted.” An interesting conclusion, considering they were very involved at the time in the “hockey stick” claim of very low variability for some 600 years.
Hunger is one word that can summarize human history. People were almost always hungry or starving. It is still true for too much of the world, but completely unnecessary. Malthus misdirected the focus with his claim that population growth would exceed increases in food production. The Club of Rome and its offspring, Agenda 21, perpetuate and expand the misdirection by claiming overpopulation is overusing, abusing and causing shortage of all resources.
The world is not overpopulated. There is no shortage of food. It’s estimated we produce enough every year to feed 26 billion people. However, thanks to Malthus and neo-Malthusians, we ignore the real problems that are adequate storage and effective distribution.
Once we switched from hunter/gatherer to sedentary agriculture, the ability to store food over the non-growing season became a force for invention and innovation. Just one example was the entire spice industry, primarily used to preserve and make food palatable. It drove commerce for buyer and seller across the world. As one person wrote,
In its day, the spice trade was the world’s biggest industry: it established and destroyed empires, led to the discovery of new continents, and in many ways helped lay the foundation for the modern world.
Estimates vary, but about 60-70 percent of the food grown in developing nations never makes it to the table. The figure is 30-40 percent for the developed world. Most of the difference is due to refrigeration. Maybe a measure of how little knowledge or importance is applied to these facts, is that few know the name Clarence Birdseye II. Refrigeration also helped the distribution problems, especially when it combined with containerization.
Modern container shipping celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006. Almost from the first voyage, use of this method of transport for goods grew steadily and in just five decades, containerships would carry about 60% of the value of goods shipped via sea.
Some crops were adopted and adapted for their relative ease of production and storage. These characteristics were well known about the potato in South America and gave its appearance in Europe such an impact. It is likely that the cool damp conditions of the Little Ice Age (LIA) pushed grain prices up, providing an opportunity for rapid adoption of the potato. Libby’s study of grain prices for four European countries illustrates the jump.
Source: H.H Lamb, Climate, Past, Present and future, Vol.2. 1977.
The peasants could achieve a great yield in poor soil and store them for the entire winter. Ireland adopted and became more dependent on the potato than most other countries. It likely caused the surge in population as the census figures show.
The population declined to 6.6 million by 1851. The pattern of population for the Republic is shown in Figure 2.
There were famines again in 1877-78, 1885 and 1889-90 that are reflected in the increased decline of population in Figure 2.
The famine of 1740-41 is described on the cover of the book Arctic Ireland as,
“…more intense, more bizarre and proportionately more deadly, yet most history books acknowledge it with no more than a line or two in passing.”
The book is subtitled, “The extraordinary story of the GREAT FROST and FORGOTTEN FAMINE of 1740-41”, which underscores the different weather conditions of the 1740 and 1845 famines. In 1845, the weather did not directly kill people; rather, the cool damp conditions were favorable for the potato blight. Overdependence on a single crop made the people vulnerable. Other countries, like Norway, also suffered the potato blight, but were not as dependent. The Irish Potato famine was coincident with poor crop conditions throughout Europe. The 1840s are called the “the Hungry Forties” as cool wet summers combined with moderate wet winters. The combination causes harvest failures and malnourished people who are vulnerable to diseases that survive and even flourish through the winter. These conditions are similar to those predominant in the 14th century that Barbara Tuchman documented so well in her book a Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.
In 1740 the world was just emerging from the nadir of the Little Ice Age in the 1680s. As the author David Dickson notes,
On the eve of the crisis there had perhaps been some complacency as to the power of exceptional whether to upset normal life. Winters had been relatively benign over the previous thirty years. No one, not even those with distant memories of the terrible winters of the 1680s, was prepared for what became known as the Great Frost of 1740 or for “bliain an dir” the year of slaughter of 1741.
The 1740 weather illustrates what happens when events combine. We organized the conference on the impact of the Indonesian volcano Tambora because John Eddy’s work on temperature sunspot relations and Hubert Lamb’s work on the Dust Veil Index were raising questions about cause and effect. Temperatures were already declining from the solar activity associated with the Dalton Minimum (1790-1830) when Tambora erupted.
It appears the cold trend of the Little Ice Age was turning. Volcanic activity, particular the eruption of Ichinsky in Kamchatka, triggered the Great Frost of 1741. Dickson claims,
Indeed, the time of the Great Frost remains to this day the longest period of extreme cold in modern European history.
This claim appears to depend on the definition of “modern European history”. The Central England Temperature (Figure 3) shows the cold of 1740 and a prolonged cold spell that exceeds anything after 1900. In the commentary to the Archibald article there is reference to blocking, the pattern that causes the normal west to east movement of the Rossby Waves to slow down and the Waves to deepen. This results in extreme, prolonged temperature or precipitation patterns that cause problems and is most likely the explanation as other similar events indicate.
Cynthia Wilson and I organized a workshop for the 1816 conference. We created very large global maps and asked people to indicate the temperature and precipitation patterns for their region. Using simple symbols for very high normal and very low, a distinctive map emerged that showed the extreme meridionality of the Circumpolar Vortex. (The maps are included in the published proceedings.) The pattern of wind was significantly different in direction and force. Similar changes in wind were noted in 1740. In Scotland the January wind was described as a piercing Nova Zembla (Novaya Zemlya) air” This means it was coming form the northeast, probably as part of the Polar Easterlies (Figure 4).
The pattern of deaths was different in 1741 than 1845. Most early deaths were due to the extreme cold, followed by a growing number due to starvation. Records are scarce but Dickson says,
How does 1740-41 measure up again later, more famous, Great Irish Famine? In terms of relative casualties, the older crisis was undoubtedly the more severe, even taking the lower bound estimate of 310,000 fatalities in 1740-41.
More important, these deaths occurred in a relatively short year and a half, while 1845 lasted some six years.
Both time 1741 and 1845 experienced meridional conditions as the Rossby Waves deepened and slowed in their easterly migration. Generally, with zonal flow or even low amplitude meridional flow, mid-latitude weather patterns persist
approximately 4 to 6 weeks. As meridionality intensifies, Rossby Waves deepen and blocking occurs, causing weather patterns to persist for 8, 10 or even 12 weeks. This can cover entire growing seasons and result in excessive, damaging, hot, cold, wet or dry conditions.
Various permutations can occur. For example, in the 14th century there were long periods with cool and wet summers, with warm and wet winters – it was difficult to separate the seasons. Similar conditions occurred during the 17th century and again plagues devastated populations. During the period following Tambora, extreme meridionality caused prolonged conditions. A drought in central Canada, documented in detail by Peter Fidler, stressed the people with profound social and historical impact detailed in my 1992 paper, “Climatic Change, Droughts and Their Social Impact: Central Canada, 1811-20, a classic example”. It was also the theme of a public presentation at the Museum titled, “The Year without a Summer: Its Impact on the Fur Trade and History of Western Canada.” at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa. As usual, historians attributed the social impacts solely to colonial expansion.
It is the same pattern seen in reports of the 2011 uprising in Egypt that became “the Arab Spring”. The catalyst was dramatic increases in food prices. At best, these got secondary mention by a few reports.
Then, there is a secondary problem: a huge run-up in food costs in recent months. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the worldwide food price index is at an all-time high—surpassing its 2008 peak, when skyrocketing costs caused global rioting and pushed as many as 64 million people into poverty. The price of oils, sugar, and cereals have all recently hit new peaks—and those latter prices are especially troubling for Egypt, as the world’s biggest importer of wheat.
So the media, like historians, are telling stories, with bias, misinformation and the arrogant belief that humans are not environmentally or climatically determined. As Benjamin Bradlee said, ”News is the first rough draft of history.” Regardless, they are both driven by the need to blame someone, rather than something. Until we change that the chances of understanding and reacting properly to natural events is very unlikely.
 C.R.Harington (ed) The Year Without a Summer? World Climate in 1816. 1992, National Museum of Natural Sciences, Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa.