A horrific drought in the 1870s offers a warning for today
During the 'Great Drought,' crop failures led to famine that killed about 50 million people.
In the 1870s, a severe, multi-year drought caused widespread crop failures in Asia, Africa, and Brazil. Famine followed, and the resulting fatalities were comparable to a world war. About 50 million people – 3% of the global population at the time – died.
Deepti Singh of Washington State University Vancouver studied the causes of this “Great Drought.” She says it was triggered by an unusual combination of events, including an El Niño in the Pacific and natural variations in sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, which acted in concert to increase the severity of droughts in these regions.
She warns that similar conditions could occur again. And if they do, human-caused global warming is likely to intensify the impacts.
“I think climate change is going to make that worse because both temperatures and droughts are likely to continue to increase and become more severe,” Sing says.
Even in today’s modern economic system, that poses a threat. If multiple breadbaskets experience droughts at the same time, there could be food shortages, especially in economically or politically vulnerable countries.
“And so it has implications both for local food security, as well as global food security,” Singh says.