Before 1997, the name "El Niño" was unknown to most ordinary folks. Meteorologists, oceanographers, commercial fishers, and weather buffs knew of this periodic climatic anomaly, but to the everyday person on the street, a few degrees' difference in the Pacific Ocean's temperature was irrelevant. Then one of the most powerful El Niños in recorded history caused bitter freezes in Europe, brutal snowstorms and floods in western North America, and deadly droughts throughout the South Pacific. People sat up and took notice as a relatively tiny change in oceanic temperature resulted in death and destruction in many parts of the globe.
Brian Fagan examines the social effects of El Niño and other powerful weather phenomena in Floods, Famines and Emperors. He gives plenty of examples of how cultures have adapted to stressful weather and the ways in which climatic alterations have changed the course of history. From droughts in ancient Egypt to monsoons in India, the far-reaching effects of meteorology's most cantankerous kid have deeply affected the way humans live in the world. Illustrated with useful maps and diagrams, Floods, Famines and Emperors is a clear, fascinating look at an aspect of climate studies--and of El Niño--mostly ignored by science. --Therese Littleton
From Scientific American
The aberrant and often devastating weather patterns brought on by El Niño are by now familiar. According to Fagan, they have had a less recognized effect. "There is a strong correlation between unusual climatic shifts and unusual historical events." He cites the fall of the Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt, the Moche society of Peru and the Maya of lowland Central America as examples. Other societies--the Anasazi of the American Southwest and today's San foragers of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert--have survived the impact of severe climatic stress. Fagan asks pass, he answers, have decisive centralized leadership, or develop innovations that increase the carrying capacity of the land, or, if they can, simply pack up and move elsewhere. Those that fail are less adaptable because their thinking is too rigid for the circumstances. Fagan describes the mechanisms and effects of El Niños, La Niñas and other far-reaching meteorological events and then discusses how several societies have coped with them. Could severe climatic change topple a modern civilization? "No one force--overpopulation, global warming, or rapid climate change--will destroy our civilization. But the combination of all three makes us prey to the knockout blow that could."