The impact of weather and the climate on history

History is often criticised as being the study of great men, however this is changing with the discipline expanding to encompass microhistory, social, cultural, and even anthropological elements. A further somewhat unexpected way that history is changing is an increased focus on weather and climate as determinants of historical change. In a sense though, perhaps this is not so unusual as we become increasingly aware of how our own rapidly changing climate is fundamentally impacting our own times and thus the history we shall leave behind. Most people will be familiar with the example that Hitler’s invasion was at least partly thwarted by the savage Russian winter, but the impact of weather and climate on the past is far more wide-ranging than this.

Before going any further it is important to make a key distinction between weather and climate. Weather refers to short term conditions in a particular time or place, such as heatwaves, whereas climate refers to weather conditions and trends over a longer period of time, and in a general area.

Both weather and climate have fundamentally impacted the course of human history from the very beginning. In fact, climate change was a key driver of early human migration, instigating the movement of early humans from Africa to other parts of the world. Such migration was motivated by climactic changes which led to increasingly wet conditions in the Arabian and Sinai peninsulas which created migration paths laden with natural resources extending from Africa to Eurasia.

Climate also played in important part in shaping and aiding the success of the largest continuous land empire in history, the Mongol Empire. The rise of the Mongols under Genghis Khan coincided with a warm and wet period in the Mongolian steppe during which crops would have grown easily. As such, there was less infighting between tribes for territory on which to grow crops. This greater unity meant the Mongols could focus their attention on territorial expansion. While the success of the Empire cannot be solely attributed to geographical and climactic determinism, this must certainly be considered to be a key contributing factor.

The Little Ice Age of the 17th Century also correlates with the General Crisis of the 17th Century, a prolonged period of political instability characterised by increased rebellions and warfare. This has led historians, most notably Geoffrey Parker, to connect the two, suggesting that the cool climate contributed to, or at least exacerbated the political turmoil experienced throughout the world at this time. For example, increased warfare during this period led to increasingly burdensome taxation which peasants struggled to fulfil due to crop failures, further increasing political instability. Furthermore, rebellions staged as a direct response to food shortages can be detected throughout the world from Spain to Japan, demonstrating the impact of climate on history.

However, it is not just long-term climate trends which have had a direct impact on human history but also short-term, extreme, weather events.

Earlier in the summer the UK experienced its longest heatwave since records began and heatwaves are a prime example of weather’s impact on the course of historical events and developments. For example, the 1858 heatwave which led to The Great Stink in London and prompted the government to commission Joseph Bazalgette to design and build a sewage system under the streets of London. Many of the sewers are still in use today and the government’s commissioning of them can be seen as a move away from laissez-faire policies and a move towards direct involvement particularly in the area of public health. Thus, acting as a reminder of the impact of weather on public health developments and history more generally.

At the other end of the extreme, storms have also played a significant part in history particularly in derailing planned invasions. For example, attempted invasions of Japan by the Mongols and led by Kublai Khan in both 1274 and 1281 failed due to typhoons. Similarly, the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is often put down to storms which smashed Spanish ships along the Irish coast.

Therefore, the climate and extreme weather events have significantly impacted the course of regional and global history. As such, both must remain a feature of historical study going forward.

Image by Kim Siever on Flickr

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