Great Moments in Anthropogenic Climate Theories

In the 1860's and 1970's, in the United States, there was a great post-war westward migration.  Many settlers began to try to farm lands west of the 100th meridian.  These normally very arid regions experienced a couple of decades of much greater rainfall during this period.  We know today that this was merely a cyclical variation of the type that is constantly occurring in the climate.  However, people of this time chose to believe that this was a permanent change, attributing the shift in rainfall to anthropogenic effects (any of this sound familiar?)  The saying at the time was that "rain followed the plow."

The basic premise of the theory was that human habitation and agriculture through homesteading affected a permanent change in the climate of arid and semi-arid regions, making these regions more humid. The theory was widely promoted in the 1870s as a justification for the settlement of the Great Plains, a region previously known as the "Great American Desert". It was also used to justify the expansion of wheatgrowing on marginal land in South Australia during the same period.

According to the theory, increased human settlement in the region and cultivation of soil would result in an increased rainfall over time, rendering the land more fertile and lush as the population increased. As later historical records of rainfall indicated, the theory was based on faulty evidence arising from brief climatological fluctuations. The theory was later refuted by climatologists and is regarded as a serious error. In South Australia, George Goyder warned as early as 1865, in his famous report on farming in the state, that rain would not follow the plow. Despite this, until further droughts in the 1880s, farmers talked of cultivating cereal crops up to the Northern Territory border. Today, however, grain crops do not grow further north than Quorn.

The result was eventually disaster for thousands and many abandoned farms in places like Eastern Colorado.  To some extent, the theory had a grain of truth - changes in land use do affect the climate.  For example, the loss of snow on Kilimanjaro is generally attributed (by non Al Gore types) to deforestation in the area.  But as is so often the case, the effects of man's land use tended to be more local (as with urban heat islands in cities) rather than regional, and ended up in this case being small compared to natural variations.

  • Lincolntf

    Good post. Nice to put the AGW nonsense in a fresh historical context.

    P.S. Typo in the first sentence "1970's"

  • Ah, Nebraska Land, Sweet Nebraska Land!
    Upon thy burning soil I stand.
    And I look away, across the plains,
    And I wonder why it never rains.

    This background from Doug French at Lew Rockwell is telling:

    The First World War then set off a series of events that would lead to disaster. The dry-land farmers had enjoyed prosperity, working the land and growing wheat with the benefit of new machinery that made them wondrously productive. Then the Turkish navy kept Russian wheat from making its way to Europe and the federal government told farmers to produce more wheat to win the war. And produce they did; from 1917 to 1919, the number of acres put into wheat production increased 70 percent. And why not: the government guaranteed a price of $2 per bushel.

    But when the war ended, the price collapsed and there was no one to buy the mountains of grain left rotting in the sun. The debts incurred to buy equipment and property still had to be paid, so farmers continued to plow up the grassland in hopes that the price of wheat would rebound. By 1931, 33 million acres in the Great Plains had been plowed. But farmers could only sell the wheat for half what it cost to produce the golden grain, if they could find buyers at all. And then the winds came.

    The black blizzards began in earnest in 1932 and would continue through the end of the decade. These storms would carry enough static electricity that people would avoid shaking hands because the shock would flatten a person. With no rain and temperatures exceeding more than 110 degrees for days on end, more and more bugs appeared. Grasshoppers swarmed over fields; centipedes by the bucketful infested houses, along with Black Widow spiders and Tarantulas. Rabbits multiplied while the people choked from the dust.

    My depression-era parents were pretty tight-lipped about the "Dirty 30s." The memories must have been too painful to discuss.

  • Ted Rado

    There is always a tendency to ascribe events to some observed phenomenon. After the Vietnam war, many atributed cancer to agent orange. The military did a statistical study and concluded that the incidence of cancer among the exposed vets was the same as the polulation at large. In response to the outcry from the vets at this conclusion, several other studies were done by other agencies, all showing the same thing. To this day, many are convinced that the agent orange caused their illness.

    One has to be careful to avoid this obvious pitfall in studying cause and effect. Many today attribute everything to AGW, whether it is cold, hot, dry, wet, stormy or whatever. This sort of thing must be carefully avoided if any useful results are to be found.

  • Margaret

    There is also a tendency for us humans to think we are more important as a cause of change than we really are. It's as if we have to be at the centre of the universe even after Galileo !!

  • Rathtyen

    I’ve never heard the idea that the “rain followed the plow’ – I think that idea was an American one.

    South Australia was a bit different. It was the only state in Australian not started as a penal colony, and it was settled by immigrant farmers. But it was settled later than the other colonies, and of course, like the whole of Australia, much later than North America. A big difference was they didn’t really know what the prevailing conditions were like because no one had been around to see what it was normally like.

    Farmers settled on the Eyre Peninsula and other areas during a “rain window”, and unusually wet period which made the land look good for farming. Unlike the earlier settlers of Greenland, who at least got a few hundred years from their land, the Eyre Peninsula settlers only got about a decade. They got to do all the backbreaking work of land clearing and initial crop growing, not to mention building homes etc from scratch (these were some of the most remote farming settlements in the world), only to have the prevailing dry return.

    Heartbreaking stuff, but then life often can be that way. The weather as well.

  • Rathtyen

    LOL -I should have read the full article before commenting re “rain follows the plow”.

  • Matt

    Should be "effected a permanent change"

  • the other coyote

    In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book "The First Four Years," she gave a first-hand account of the drought that gripped South Dakota in the 1880's and 1890's. In retrospect, what she described as a "drought" was more likley "a return to normal." In the 1890's, Wilder, her husband, and her daughter gave up trying to farm in South Dakota along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other homesteaders. They packed what little they had left and moved to Mansfield, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains, in 1894. Wilder kept a journal of her cross country journey to Missouri, traveling in a converted buggy pulled by two Morgan horses, that was published after her death as a short book entitled "On the Way Home." In that book, she states that the whole country was on the move (or, more likely, adrift); she wrote that they met farmers displaced from drought, recession/depression, etc. going east, west, north and south.

    Wilder lived on a small farm in the Ozarks for the rest of her life. Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, had an "adopted grandson" who wrote a series of book about her life. I recently finished reading them to my daughter. In each book, there is a reference or two to the decade of drought Laura and Almanzo endured in South Dakota before throwing in the towel.

    I recently finished "The Children's Blizzard," a heartbreaking account of a killer blizzard that swept across the Dakotas one afternoon in 1888 (??), catching unsuspecting folks - especially children, who were at school - out in the open. The author does a fantastic job of explaining why weather happens -- with, refreshingly, absolutely no mention of global warming or human-induced climate change. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a fascinating (and heartbreaking) glimpse into the life and death struggles faced by ordinary Americans as recently as 130 years ago. It's easy to forget in this day and age that not too long ago, you could die on your way home from school.