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Deadliest droughts in India were before 1924

Next time someone tells you how extreme the climate is today remind them that five million people died in a drought in 1896 in India. That was the same year a brutally hot summer in Australia caused 400 deaths and people fled the inland heat on emergency trains. Somewhere between 1 and 5 million people died a few years later in the next drought — the same time as Australia’s “Federation drought”.

Spot the effect of CO2 in 150 years of rainfall of India:

Droughts, rain in India, graph.

Average rainfall anomalies in India from 1850 – 2016 from IMD (black) and GISS (red).  | Click to read the official caption.

Famine deaths have largely been eliminated in India, mostly thanks to better transport and organisation, higher yields (thanks to fertilizer and CO2) and irrigation. Droughts still happen but in a population that has grown from 250 million in 1880 to a billion in 2000 the extraordinary thing is that more people starved of famine when the population was only a quarter of the size and CO2 levels were “perfecto”.

Weakened people died of cholera and malaria, and bubonic plague too.  Death rates to these diseases often doubled or tripled.

Famine, India, 1896.

Famine, India, 1896.

Thanks to fossil fuels and atmospheric CO2 countless lives have been saved.

History keeps being forgotten:

Drought and famine in India, 1870-2016

Vimal Mishra et al., Geophysical Research Letters, January 2019

Millions of people died due to famines in India in the 19th and 20th centuries; however, the relationship of historical famines with drought is complicated and not well understood. Using station-based observations and simulations, we reconstruct soil moisture (agricultural) drought in India for the period 1870-2016. We show that over this century and a half period, India experienced seven major drought periods (1876-1882, 1895-1900, 1908-1924, 1937-1945, 1982-1990, 1997-2004, and 2011-2015) based on severity-area-duration (SAD) analysis of reconstructed soil moisture. Out of six major famines (1873-74, 1876, 1877, 1896-97, 1899, and 1943) that occurred during 1870-2016, five are linked to soil moisture drought, and one (1943) was not. The three most deadly droughts (1877, 1896, and 1899) were linked with the positive phase of El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

h/t to GWPF


Vimal Mishra et al., (2019) Drought and famine in India, 1870-2016,  Geophysical Research Letters, January 2019 [Researchgate]

Supp: grl58542-sup-0001-2018GL081477-SI.docx

Image: John Blees

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