November 24, 2004
by Dennis T. Avery
Alarmists tell us that global warming may bring massive famines to the Earth in the next century. History, however, tells us the real threat of famine will arrive about 600 to 800 years from now, when the 1500-year climate cycle turns cold again.
In Europe, the Medieval Warming (950-1300 AD) was a period of ample sunshine, few and mild storms, and longer growing seasons. The human population, as a result, increased about 50 percent. The English and French populations nearly tripled. Temperatures were higher than today's.
The fine weather ended abruptly, however, as the planet shifted into the Little Ice Age (1300-1850 AD).
During the summer of 1315, rain fell in incessant sheets from May to August, washing away much of Europe's topsoil, creating huge gullies, and beating crops to the ground. In late summer, the weather turned unseasonably cold, and the soft, moist kernels of the remaining grain plants were attacked by fungus. From Ireland east to Germany and north through Scandinavia, the harvests were disastrous.
The hunger began within months. "The cries that were heard from the poor would move a stone, as they lay in the street with woe and great complain, swollen with hunger," wrote a Flemish observer at the time. Millions died. There were rumors of secret cannibalism. Animals starved too.
In the 1590s, the coldest part of the 16th century, famine struck again. Farmers in the heavily populated Low Countries and England were driven to invent new farming systems, including crop rotation and draining wetlands to create richer, level cropland.
Food shortages killed millions between 1690 and 1700, and there were more famines in 1725 and 1816 (Ladurie, op cit., p 64-79)..The food crisis brought on by the severe cold and poor harvests of 1816 ranged from the United States to the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, into parts of North Africa, and across Europe from Italy to Switzerland. Typhus epidemics followed the harvest failures, and bubonic plague reappeared.
Japanese histories record two famines during the Little Ice Age which caused a million deaths each (the Kyoho famine of 1732 and the Tenmei famine of 1782-1787). Another, the Tenpo famine of 1823-1839, starved 300,000. Japanese researchers have just unearthed pollen from lakebed sediments indicating that the local farmers encouraged horse chestnuts as a "famine food" during the cold period.
Two Israeli researchers say they have found a linkage between the sunspot cycles of the 20th century and durum wheat prices in the U.S. Most of the durum wheat is grown in North Dakota, and a weaker sun (with shorter sunspot cycles) is associated with more low, wet clouds and less sunshine for the crops. Paintings done during the Little Ice Age typically show overcast skies, even in the summer.
Mexico had more frequent droughts during the Little Ice Age than during the warm periods, and the Mayan cities were abandoned in the 9th century because of prolonged Dark Ages drought.
The ice cores and seabed sediments in the past two decades have shown us the irregular 1500-year cycle that runs through the last million years of Earth's climate history. It's linked to tiny variations in the sun's energy. It's unstoppable.
Ironically, we're wasting the good years of the Modern Warming wailing about famines, fierce storms and disease epidemics from higher temperatures. But the real reasons to worry will come with the next Little Ice Age, probably after the year 2700 AD.
The last two times the Earth's climate shifted into a cold phase, humanity suffered not only the massive famines, but bubonic plague epidemics too. Apparently, we'll all die of boring old age before any really notable global disasters come along.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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