Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Surviving Mother Nature’s Tests: The effects climate change and other natural phenomena have had on the lives of our ancestors (with examples from the British Isles)

I have written a new book that combines my training and expertise in Earth science (geology) with my experiences and research in genealogy.

Surviving Mother Nature’s Tests relates many examples of situations observed in nature – primarily from the British Isles, but applicable everywhere – to the lives of families who experienced or endured them during the past several centuries. Descriptions of many types of natural phenomena are presented along with numerous references to publications in which readers may find much more information as to their origin and impact on people.

A constant underlying theme runs through many major environmental transformations, influencing the number, timing and magnitude of events – climate change. Over thousands of years, the ebbs and flows of global climate have resulted in patterns of weather that significantly affected food production, shelter and employment, and with that, living conditions and basic survival.

Information presented will be of interest to those who want an introduction to the causes and effects of climate change. Family historians will gain knowledge about how such processes significantly affected generations of people during the past several centuries.

As the title suggests, the book summarizes different natural phenomena, the time periods in which they occurred and explanations of how people survived the particular tests imposed on them by Mother Nature. Among the subjects treated are:

·         Climate Change – what controls global transformations
·         Epochal Changes – how gradual altering of physical environments and human habitats occurring over generations affected living conditions and societal history
·         The Holocene Epoch – brief summaries of human and natural history of the last 10,000 years illustrating the frequency of alternating warm and cold periods and the commonality of their effects on societies
·         The Last Millennium – natural conditions during the last 1,000 years with an emphasis on the effects on people, communities and social systems
·         Slow-Developing Events – how such events as drought and famine, erosion of coastal margins, infilling of estuaries, shifts in river courses and volcanic activity affected living conditions and economies
·         Rapidly-Materializing Incidents – impacts on people and communities from disease, earthquakes, floods and storms 

In almost any scenario one can imagine involving people and communities in the past, elements of the physical environment have significantly impacted living conditions. Some natural events, such as climate change, have played out over centuries; others, including major storms or floods, have caused damage and death in just hours. Many incidents concerning natural phenomena have altered lives and livelihoods, disrupted normal activities and, in many instances, forced people to change their way of life or move. In many cases people moved in order to participate in major clean-up and repair projects, a large number of them eventually settling in those new locations.

Social and political events were often connected to natural changes. Famine, resulting from various natural events, over time caused upheaval and unrest among people. The outcomes of wars have been affected by physical or climatological conditions on the battlefields. Migration of families, on a local scale and involving whole communities began when people could no longer feed themselves in areas devastated by changes to the environment.

Mother Nature has constantly been testing humans with a variety of natural phenomena. Studies of family history are not complete without consideration of the environs in which our ancestors lived. Mostly only strong and resourceful people – or in some cases, the luckiest ones – lasted through the many alterations of their physical surroundings.

Surviving Mother Nature’s Tests is available from Unlock the Past and Gould Genealogy & History (Australia) in both print and PDF format.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Grandparents are supposed to be…

So…grandparents are supposed to be those patient, smiling, gray-haired people who run a farm, with horses that work for them or that you ride with in a carriage or wagon pulled by old Dobbin (there really was a Dobbin on the farm of my grandparents).

Grandparents are not supposed to be the ones who spend part of a Saturday at the local A&W, having lunch delivered by a girl on roller skates (apparently some places are bringing this service back); or working at a Dairy Queen making those cute little curly cues on top of a soft ice cream cone, then dipping them in chocolate (mmmm!).

Grandmothers bake cookies or make fried chicken dinners, after they “harvest” the chickens out in the back yard, of course, and bring in the fresh vegetables from the big garden by the creek.

Not ones who kids ride with on an ATV down a muddy lane.

In the evenings grandparents sit reading, knitting and listening to the radio.

They don’t exchange pictures and comments live on Skype or WeChat. And they don’t own iPhones and tablets!

They shop at the town general store and sometimes in the city at a department store. Or they might use the Eaton’s catalogue (Sears Roebuck in the USA) that is delivered to their mail box.

They don’t do Amazon!

It’s different now. We modern grandparents, of course, do all the stuff that our grandparents never dreamed of – much of it our parents never were exposed to, either. We are able to see our grandchildren in real time, no matter where they are. We can talk to and see them on their birthdays or when they participate in performances on the other side of the world, via a direct link through the Internet. (I posted about this subject last August: Family History in the making…and seen Live!). Or we can fly to visit with them in person in a matter of hours.

I was fortunate growing up in being able to know and visit with my grandparents. My wife’s parents immigrated to Canada on their own, so she never met her grandparents. In any case, they had all died in Scotland long before she was born. In these respects, we are a lot like my parents.

My father grew up knowing his maternal grandparents and paternal grandfather who lived in the same rural community of Keoma, Alberta. They were all part of a close-knit family. My mother never met her grandparents. Most of them had died before she was born. She was only eight years old and living in Oregon when her paternal grandfather died and I never heard any stories of her visiting him with her parents in Oklahoma.

We try to be a big part of our grandchildren’s lives because we want to be, we can be and we want them to know about us. We also try to share stories of their ancestors, from all branches, so that they will have some knowledge of where and who they came from.

Family history is a continual process with stories being added every day. In the future I hope our grandchildren will pass along their reminiscences about their grandparents to their grandchildren. We’ll be history by then!

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 13: 1789-93 El Niño Event

El Niño events have been more studied in recent decades as their regularity and disruptive character has devastated areas around the globe. Such events are new or restricted to modern times but have been part of the Earth’s climate history for many millennia – at least. The most recently reported-on El Niño years are 1997-98 and 2015-16 when temperatures soared, droughts were widespread and calamitous weather was experienced. Readers will find many reports of the damage wrought by these two storms online and in news accounts.

The history of many regions is being re-examined with respect to El Niño and La Niña events, specifically, to see whether these weather conditions played a negative or positive role in their exploration, settlement or development.

As described on the Live Science website, “El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns. The cycle begins when warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean shifts eastward along the equator toward the coast of South America. Normally, this warm water pools near Indonesia and the Philippines. During an El Niño, the Pacific's warmest surface waters sit offshore of northwestern South America. . . There is also an opposite of an El Niño, called La Niña. This refers to times when waters of the tropical eastern Pacific are colder than normal and trade winds blow more strongly than usual. Collectively, El Niño and La Niña are parts of an oscillation in the ocean-atmosphere system called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO cycle, which also has a neutral phase.”

More detail about El Niño and La Niña, along with pertinent references can be found at the end of this post.

Prior to the 18th century, there was little documentation for El Niño events, at least is defining them as such. Many regions certainly suffered droughts or exceptional rainfall in similar patterns to what we recognize as El Niños today, so there seems to be no doubt these extreme weather conditions did operate and had severely impacts on communities.

One major El Niño event that affected most parts of the civilized and developing world, perhaps serving as a great example of how ancestral communities and families were affected, occurred during the Northern Hemisphere winter of 1791-92. This was in the late part of the Little Ice Age, a time when most settled areas had already undergone deprivation with cold, drought, famine and disease for many decades. Such events will have exacerbated the harsh living conditions extant during this time period.

An article by Richard H. Grove (2007) describes the effects of the extended 1789-93 El Niño in areas around the globe very succinctly for the regions of:
·         Australia (drought, rivers dried up, crop failures)
·         Brazil (drought, cattle industry disseminated)
·         Caribbean Islands (drought)
·         Chile (drought)
·         East Indies and South Pacific (cold and drought)
·         Eastern North America (high temperatures, heavy rainfall, leading to rise in mosquito population and spread of diseases like yellow fever)
·         Egypt (low floods in successive years, poor crops, famine, social unrest)
·         England (unusually high winter temperatures)
·         France and Western Europe (unusual and extreme weather possibly resulting in the social unrest that was part of the French Revolution)
·         India (see below)
·         Mexico (drought, major lake levels dropped)
·         Peru (exceptional and prolonged rainfall, flooding)
·         Russia (drought)
·         South Africa (drought, military conflict with migrating people)
·         Southwest USA (excessive rain, flooding, cropland and infrastructure destruction)

India was among the regions hardest hit. The widespread drought over several years created famine almost unprecedented even for that country. In many regions, communities lost half of their populations to starvation and associated epidemics. The famine was so intense that bodies remained unburied creating a spectre of rotting corpses along roadways and in fields. The abundance of bleaching bones resulted in the famine being called Doji bara, or the skull famine. Cases of cannibalism were reported. Millions are reported to have died between 1789 and 1792.
Map of India (1795) shows the Northern Circars, Hyderabad (Nizam), Southern Maratha Kingdom, Gujarat, and Marwar (Southern Rajputana), all affected by the Doji bara famine (retrieved 3 April 2018 from Doji bara famine Wikipedia)

And the list goes on! Many areas hit were newly-established colonies such as those in Australia, India and South Africa or developing communities such as those in North America.

Family historians my find, on closer examination, that El Niños were perhaps responsible for problem their ancestors may have had in food production or other employment. Such events may possibly have been behind their reason to migrate to areas where they thought a better life and more opportunity might be found. Whether they found those improved living conditions might well have depended on the weather or climatic conditions in their new homes.

How El Niños and La Niñas work

Understanding how El Niños and La Niñas work will give a family historian a better idea of whether their ancestors might have been affected in their normal lives or following migration to new regions. The following descriptions are taken from El Niño: The weather phenomenon that changed the world by Ross Couper-Johnston (2000):

Typically during El Niños, rainfall is greatly reduced over much of Indonesia; the Philippines; northern and eastern Australia; the populated Pacific Islands; New Zealand’s North Island; India; southern Africa; Ethiopian highlands; Ghana; Nigeria; Sahelian Africa, most of central America extending into central Mexico, Colombia and northern South America; the Caribbean; northeast Brazil; and the Altiplano of Peru and Bolivia. Most of the major droughts in these regions have occurred during El Niños. The Sahel receives a moderately strong El Nino signal but is also markedly affected by longer-term fluctuations. On the other hand, heavier rain and increased probability of flood conditions are found over much of southern USA and the Great Basin, northern Mexico; the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coastline; central Chile; southeastern and northern Argentina; Paraguay; Uruguay and southern Brazil; the islands in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific such as the Galapagos and Nauru; New Zealand’s South Island; the very southern tip of India and Sri Lanka; central China to southern Japan; Vietnam; the western
cape of South Africa; Kenya; Tanzania; Uganda; and much of western Europe. There are many other regions such as central California and northern Europe, that experience significant impacts, although the nature of the anomalies is somewhat inconsistent
.” [page 44-45]
Trade winds during an El Niño year from Thomson Higher Education website

Broadly speaking, the pattern for La Niñas is the reverse of that of El Niños. Excessively wet or flood conditions are experienced predominantly over the continents bordering the Pacific and Indian Oceans – in particular, Australasia, northern China, India, southern Africa and parts of north-eastern South America. Dry or drought conditions tend to occur most commonly in the Gulf states of the USA, south-eastern Argentina, central Chile, central China, South Africa’s western Cape, eastern Africa and much of western Europe.

Unusually colder temperatures are commonly experienced across northern South America, the Caribbean, Alaska and north-western Canada, Japan, South-East Asia, India, southern Africa, Sahelian and north western Africa, and western Europe. North eastern Australia and central south-western Pacific tend to experience warmer conditions.

The poleward shift of the sub-tropical jet streams in La Niñas increases the probability of stronger and more frequent tornado activity in the USA in all tornado prone areas – particularly in the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys – with the exception of the Florida peninsula
One of the most dramatic Impacts of La Niña and El Niño events on people is the reshuffling of likely tropical storm formation zones. . .

During La Niñas, high pressure cells in the sub-tropical Atlantic tend to be weakened and displaced off North and South America, creating warmer waters than usual. This has the effect of extending the hurricane season. The frequency of hurricanes occurring during La Niñas is approximately double that of normal years.” [page 46-47]
Trade winds and rainfall during a normal year, from Thomson Higher Education website


Couper-Johnston, R. (2000). El Niño: The weather phenomenon that changed the world. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Davis, M. (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño famines and the making of the third world. London-New York: Verso.

Fagan, B. (1999). Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Niño and the fate of civilizations. New York: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group.

Grove, R. H. (2007). The Great El Niño of 1789-93 and its Global Consequences: Reconstructing and Extreme Climate Event in World Environmental History. The Medieval History Journal, 10(1&2), pp 75-98.

Grove, R. & G. Adamson. (2017). El Niño in World History.  London: Palgrave Macmillan. (also in Kindle version)

Sandweiss, D. H. & J. Quilter. (2008). El Niño, Catastrophism, and Culture Change in Ancient America. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University.