“My Name Is El Niño. You Can Blame Me For Everything.”

Review of Floods, Famines and Emperors:  El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations by Brian Fagan

The Americas are massive bodies of land separating the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  Or from a different point of view, they are the massive bodies of land that rim the eastern side of the Pacific.  Having arrived where they are now by “drifting” east, through time immemorial, from Europe and Africa, the American continents are linked by a rugged land bridge, the Isthmus of Panama.   Panama keeps Pacific and Atlantic currents at bay except around Tierra del Fuego, the end of the earth.  There is a theory, visited by Steven Stanley in his book Children of the Ice Age (W.H. Freeman, 1998) that the world became a colder place when North and South America collided, joined, and cut off ocean circulation that once had a moderating effect on global climate.  Now, as a result (the theory goes) we have Ice Ages.  Depending on how you count the extremes of coldness, the last small Ice Age was about 550 years long and ended around 1860.  For northern Americans and Europeans, Christmases more often were snowy back then, and preferring nostalgia to change, many (who shouldn’t) continue to think that a white Christmas is normal.  

In the present day (and historically) atmospheric circulation carries moisture from the Atlantic into the interior of the American continents.  Asymmetrically constructed, with relatively low terrain in the east and central regions, and tall mountain spines-- the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the Andes-- in the west, the Americas are watered quite differentially by wind-born clouds.  The Andes receive rain from the east when their height hinders west-flowing atmospheric systems.  The mountains separate the Amazonian rain forest from the western deserts.  As the snow pack in the Andes melts, it waters the desert valleys of the western slopes and Pacific coast.  For thousands of years the populations of Peru have found this water source essential, and have expanded elaborate irrigation systems for agriculture since deep in pre-Columbian time.

With a little more rain coming off the Pacific in California than Peru, California agriculture is still dependent on irrigation tapping the rivers that flow west out of the mountains.  The Jet Stream governs much of North America’s weather and precipitates rain along fronts that shift across a broad swath depending on how far south the Jet Stream flows.  It brings rain to central and southern California, but in relatively small amounts.

This is the way things are until there is an El Niño.  The weather event called El Niño destroys normalcy, especially when it is a big El Niño.  Warm water that in most years flows into the western tropical Pacific accumulates in the east instead, affecting both oceanic and atmospheric circulation.  Then, torrential rains fall in places along the Americas’ Pacific coast that receive very little rain in most years, places that in some cases are considered to be among the world’s driest deserts.  Rivers swell and jump their banks, eroding away topsoil and leaving expanses of redeposited silt mixed with everything they picked up along the way.  Houses, roads, canals, etc. are destroyed, and in big El Niños, there is significant loss of human life, especially in South America.  The ecology is also affected, as warm-water species locally replace cold water species.  In Peru, this ruins anchovy production, which decreases food for both humans and seabirds, and continues to have ramifications of economic importance. 
And the effects of El Niño reach much farther than certain western hemisphere Pacific coastal regions.  Sometimes these effects are considered benign, as when the northeastern United States experiences a warm winter.  But other regions, such as the already dry northeast of Brazil, are severely affected by droughts brought on by El Niños disruption of atmospheric circulation.  Unless governments have tracked the prediction of an El Niño event, food shortages ensue, and political unrest may also.  Political unrest as a result of an El Niño-induced famine occurred in Brazil during a 1997-1998 El Niño event.  In our era, and in the future the Internet provides almost everyone, disenfranchised populace and government alike, with the same information at the same time with regard to cause, effect, preparedness, and response.  This in a sense prepares people for a weak government response and a strong claim of culpability.  

El Niño doesn’t just deluge Peru and California and dry out northeast Brazil.  It disrupts air and water circulation patterns that have different effects in different places, sometimes bringing the unexpected, sometimes making existing problems worse.  Patterned, recurrent droughts during El Niño years severely harm the western Pacific region, especially large parts of Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  In tropical forest areas of Southeast Asia, the deleterious effect of drought is worsened when slash and burn clearing sets massive out-of-control fires. 

Much of what I have just said about El Niño is paraphrased from Brian Fagan.  In 1998, at the tail end of what, up to that time, was the largest El Niño yet recorded, the archaeologist Brian Fagan wrote a very informative book about the phenomenon.  Fagan covers the larger story, ranging from what El Niño is in Peru (where it got its name), to (1) how global patterns of weather events were discovered, (2) how El Niños were discovered to have global effects as well as local, (3) the development of an imperative to predict El Niños, and (4) the effects of the relatively recent, highly-studied El Niños of 1972-1973, 1982-1983, and 1997-1998.  Although published in 1998 and therefore not exactly up to date, much of Floods, Famines, and Emperors' information is as valuable today as it was then.  The current season’s (2015-2016) El Niño (sometimes called the “Godzilla” El Niño) is the largest since Fagan published his book.  It is among the 3 strongest on record (also including 1982-1983 and 1997-1998); recent press reports call it the strongest.  The current El Niño should be winding down soon.  Should be, I say, rather than will be, because we are in uncharted territory in terms of the interaction between increasingly strong global warming and El Niño events.  

It is interesting to read in Floods, Famines and Emperors how weather services developed in the 19th century for practical reasons, ranging from aid to navigation to the prevention of famines; and the history of how this happened in India in order to deliver relief when the monsoons failed.  At a time when Americans such as Mark Twain and his friend Charles Dudley Warner liked to say “Everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it,”  a series of British colonial administrative services in India was creating a network of observation, communication, forecasting and relief delivery based upon an increasing number of observation points, a growing body of statistical data, and technological innovations such as the telegraph (accelerating communication) and railroad transportation (which made relief delivery in response to prediction a realistic priority).  The idea that local weather events could have widespread, even global effects grew from this research. Much later, in the 1970s, the developing concept of a single, worldwide climatic system provided significant guidance to weather research.  Scientists analyzing the data and making the connections could then propose that the El Niño phenomenon (which otherwise could have been considered only Peruvian in scope) was the cause of global climatic anomalies over the course of a single northern winter.  Once their devastating distant effects were realized, research moved in the direction of predicting strong El Niños.  Governments of the worst-affected areas especially wanted to be able to provide warning and mitigation of weather disasters.  In the U.S. in 1998, El Niño became a daily-discussed topic, especially since it was always in the news.  Fagan tells us that an Oregon company with a sense of humor marketed a toy with a badge that said “My name is El Niño.  You can blame me for everything.”

As an archaeologist Brian Fagan is world-renowned, and he brings time-depth to the story of El Niño.  Fagan does this with some urgency; and with a sense of the greater complexity and high vulnerability of today’s densely populated and interconnected world, compared to ancient times when the scope of potential disasters was more geographically limited, and there was a greater chance that people could cope effectively by relocating.  What actually happened in the past, of course, is characterized by archaeologists investigating the material record of the past.  One of the things that archaeology does is to provide long views of history, perspectives that are so lengthy in sequences of events that they can show how something changed because something else happened.  Archaeology allows the perception and explication of historical contingencies and outcomes based upon (hopefully detailed) knowledge of events and antecedent events.  Following his archaeological craft, Fagan ventures into writing about El Niño effects upon ancient human populations in Part 2 of Floods, Famines and Emperors.  

The most compelling (and convincing) of these case studies involves the Moche culture of ancient Peru.  The Moche civilization flourished than declined (or collapsed) in northern Peruvian river valleys ca AD 100-800.  In the 6th century AD during a period of drought-driven crisis, the Moche were struck by strong El Niños with torrential rains and catastrophic flooding that destroyed settlements, monuments, and irrigation systems.  I do not want to go into the details of what happened; Fagan does a great job of this.  However, the reason I say that Moche’s El Niño experience is the most compelling archaeological case is because these kinds of rains do not happen in this part of Peru unless an El Niño brings them.  This adds substantially to the history of what happened to the Moche civilization.

The other archaeological examples in Floods, Famines and Emperors including ancient Egypt, the Maya, and the American Southwest make interesting reading, although the prehistoric El Niño record is not as stark in these calamity-struck civilizations as it is in Peru.  Did El Niño affect these places in prehistory?  Probably.  Did El Niño affect my archaeological survey areas around Saratoga Springs, Albany, and Coxsackie, New York?  Probably, but maybe in ways that often  made deer hunting better and winter travel easier for ancient Native Americans of the Hudson valley.  

In the last section of the book, Fagan provides an enthralling discussion of the big El Niños of the late 20th century, and then brings up critical issues affecting the resiliency of growing human populations confronted by severe, periodic, but unending series of climatic perturbations.

Floods, Famines and Emperors:   El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations  was was published in hardcover by Basic Books in 1998.