In Collapse, Jared Diamond implicated long-term climate change in the collapse of the Anasazi society, blaming it on consistent La Niña-like conditions during the MCA (which would have featured much lower Eastern Tropical Pacific variability, were this the case). In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis implicates the strong El Niños in 1876-77 and 1881-82 as the climatic causes of failed Indian monsoons that precipitated (no pun intended) the great Indian famines – of course, combined with a large dose of Colonialism, bureaucratic intransigence, and a brutal disregard for the suffering of a large portion of the population (side note: as people were starving, they were still exporting food). From IO9 comes a link to the latest in El Niño historical ephemera, this time from a well-known story: The mutiny on the Bounty.It’s not just a movie – the Mutiny on the Bounty actually happened. Well, there was, in fact a ship (the HMS Bounty), a captain (William Bligh) and a mutiny (led by Fletcher Christian). The exact circumstances and causes have been dramatized and written about extensively, but we do know that Captain Bligh and a number of the crew loyal to him were set adrift in an open boat after the mutineers took control of the ship. In what was called “An Incredible Feat of Seamanship“, Captain Bligh took them through 3600 miles of open ocean in an open boat with little more than a compass and quadrant and got his people to Timor. That’s simply unbelievable, and would be apocryphal had not they survived and actually documented the journey. IO9 references an article by Richard Grove from The Medieval History Journal on “The Great El Niño of 1789-1793 and its Global Consequences”. Grove writes that the period from 1789-1793 was a time of great political upheaval (French Revolution, anyone?), and in part this was from the climatic upheavals of one of the strongest and longest El Niño events from the Little Ice Age. The conditions in the Tropical Pacific – changed rainfall patterns, including cold and wet conditions, instead of hot and dry – effectively saved the crew. While they were miserable (“The crew all complained of rheumatic pains and cold”, Grove (2007) p.85)., they had ample rainwater, and weren’t dehydrated nor had they needed to make landfall on hostile lands. Bligh’s act of navigation and sea-faring prowess was successful, in part, to the prevailing El Niño conditions.
Of course, there is much more in the article than just a recounting of the Mutiny on the Bounty – slave revolts in Haiti, the French Revolution, and famines in India (El Niño and the monsoons!) all come in to play. But this little anecdote is another reminder of the influence ENSO has on the climate.
Grove, R. (2007) “The Great El Niño of 1789–93 and its Global Consequences
Reconstructing an Extreme Climate Event in World Environmental History”,The Medieval History Journal 10:1, 75-98
Diamond, J (2005) “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, Viking
Davis, M (2002) “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World” Verso
Clark, S (1959) “Captain Bligh’s Incredible Feat of Seamanship After the Mutiny”, Toledo Blade, Jan 18 1959