A freak 1870s climate event caused drought across three continents

A freak 1870s climate event caused drought across three continents. By Michael Marshall.

It’s not easy to forget the deaths of 50 million people, but we have managed it. A global drought in the 1870s caused mass starvation in South America, Africa and Asia, but the event doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Now it seems the drought was triggered by a never-before-seen combination of climate events. While rare, the drought was entirely natural so it could easily happen again.

Between 1875 and 1878, severe droughts ravaged India, China and parts of Africa and South America. The result was a famine that struck three continents and lasted three years.

“It is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in human history,” says Deepti Singh at Washington State University. …

Several factors played a role. The most obvious was a big El Niño in 1877-78. .. Sea surface temperatures remained high for 16 months. That makes it bigger than the huge El Niños of 1997-98 and 2015-16. … In 1877 a second climate cycle, the Indian Ocean Dipole, was active – meaning the western Indian Ocean was warmer than the east. This typically weakens India’s monsoons. “It was the strongest Indian Ocean Dipole on record,” says Singh. The Atlantic Ocean was also unusually warm from 1877 to 1879. “Following the El Niño, it peaked to the most extreme temperatures on record,” says Singh. …

The good news is the world is more resilient to droughts today, thanks to more resilient crops and extensive trade

As for the recent reporting of a daily “global temperature,” reported as if accurate to a hundredth of a degree, the standard error for both the global thermometer network and the satellites is only 0.5C — meaning only 68% of their readings fall within 0.5C of the true temperature.

Contrary to what the news implies, the world was warmer just a few thousand years ago, in the time of the ancient Greeks and the few thousand years prior to that. This is easily proved — the sea levels were a meter or two higher than today, on every continent.