Morgan on Grove and Adamson, 'El Niño in World History'

Richard Grove, George Adamson
Ruth Morgan

Richard Grove, George Adamson. El Niño in World History. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. xvii + 245 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-45739-4.

Reviewed by Ruth Morgan (Monash University) Published on H-Water (December, 2018) Commissioned by Aditya Ramesh (SOAS, London)

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El Niño in World History is a tour de force of climate history. Together, Richard Grove and George Adamson shed new light on the dramatic extent to which El Niño has shaped the human past. Reading the historical record in light of El Niño’s global reach not only implicates the phenomenon in thousands of years of social and environmental change, but shows how different societies have responded and adapted to its diverse effects. In doing so, they argue that the increasingly sophisticated study of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has helped to improve disaster preparedness and diminish human vulnerability to its impacts. They speculate, however, that the “discovery” of El Niño in the public imagination since the 1980s and 1990s has combined with concerns about anthropogenic climate change to magnify climate anxieties about the risks that the phenomenon poses in the twenty-first century.

In the preface, Adamson lays out the challenges and opportunities of undertaking a project such as this, of honoring a giant of the field, while providing his own innovative insights in climate history. Here he sets out his approach to bringing Grove’s manuscript to publication, explaining that he has not tried to “finish” this work, which was partially drafted prior to Grove’s accident in late 2006. This logic accounts for the structure of the book, such that parts 1 and 3 are written by Grove, on the “millennial history of El Niño” and its role in the incidence of epidemic disease, and parts 2 and 4 by Adamson, with his account of the history of science of El Niño and the Southern Oscillation, and its cultural significance in the twenty-first century.

These complementary halves explore both the historical effects of El Niño on human societies and the changing ideas of what El Niño constitutes. As the authors point out, these histories are contingent upon each other: the reconstruction of El Niños past is reliant on the scientific understanding of the phenomenon at the moment that the reconstruction was undertaken, while new insights into the behavior of El Niños in the past shape how the phenomenon is understood in the present. In the late 1970s, US oceanographer William Quinn pioneered the reconstruction of El Niños using references to El Niño-related phenomena in the Spanish colonial archives of Peru prior to the nineteenth century. Using this method, Quinn was able to establish a series of El Niño events from the early sixteenth century, when Spanish explorers first encountered the Pacific Ocean and recorded variations in sea level, temperature, and rainfall, as well as damage to infrastructure and changes to marine life.

Quinn’s chronology has since been corrected and advanced using evidence derived from documentary and natural archives, as Adamson explains in his history of the science of El Niño and the Southern Oscillation. These records provide the basis for Grove’s detailed reconstruction of historical El Niños in this book’s first section. Here, Grove reaches back into deep time to examine the impact of El Niño on societies in the deep past, from the shift to the modern El Niño regime in the mid-Holocene to the late nineteenth century. This long temporal span allows for identifying the changing frequency and strength of El Niño events in the context of longer-term climatic trends, such as the Medieval Climate Anomaly, the Little Ice Age, and since the 1970s. This record, as Grove shows, suggests the influence of El Niños on economic cycles as well as catastrophic economic and social events over the past five thousand years. Based on palaeological evidence, Grove speculates as to whether emerging El Niño conditions contributed to the emergence of settled agriculture and the intensification of Australian Aboriginal land use in semi-arid areas between 5000-3000 BP. Severe El Niños in the late third millennium BCE may have also caused economic and demographic crises in Egypt, the fall of the Akkadian Empire, and even the decline of the Harappan Indus Valley civilization. Rapid environmental changes around 1200 BCE may also have been the result of severe El Niño conditions, precipitating events such as drought in Greece and the decline of the Mycenaean civilization, and floods on the Hungarian plain and large-scale migration into Asia. Frequent and powerful El Niño events between 800 and 860 CE may have also led to the collapse of the Maya civilization.

Grove turns to more solid ground in his examination of the behavior of El Niño during the Little Ice Age (c. 1350 CE-1900 CE). In South Asia and Southeast Asia, documentary evidence provides valuable insights into the historical effects of El Niño from the eleventh century. Compellingly, he suggests that climate conditions may have contributed to the spread of European empires throughout Asia, where agricultural societies were under the stress of disease and famine events associated with El Niño. Populations in Southeast Asia might have been less vulnerable to drought than inland South Asian peoples due to the availability of alternative food sources from the sea. In the seventeenth century, for instance, drought in the Deccan weakened the Mughal Empire, while in Java, crop failures and famine may have fostered the conditions for the spread of Islam. Subsequent El Niño events in the seventeenth century stimulated water conservation measures in the north and fostered greater reliance on trade, which helped to break down the isolation of South India from the rest of the subcontinent.

Expanding colonial networks of meteorological observation during the eighteenth century prompted emerging understandings of the global nature of the El Niño phenomenon. The focus of Grove’s study here is what he calls the “Great” El Niño of 1790-94 due to its strong global effects, the events it manifested, and the prolonged nature of the droughts it produced, especially in South Asia. Climate historians analyze his suggestion that it “may have been among the most severe in the available written record” (p. 88) in The Palgrave Handbook of Climate History.[1] In the following chapter, Grove argues that the impacts of the phenomenon became more significant during the nineteenth century. First, it could reduce the high levels of agricultural production on which a rapidly growing population depended, and thus increase the likelihood of famine; second, it could stimulate the spread of disease in a world that was more vulnerable to epidemics due to improved transportation and greater levels of migration. Here, he is especially concerned with the ways in which the incursion of Western governing structures in India and Africa affected traditional responses to drought, causing greater mortality figures than earlier episodes. The efforts of the colonial state to mitigate the effects of drought fostered the spread of disease in British India, for example. The possibility of linking El Niño periods with epidemics such as plague, malaria, yellow fever, cholera and influenza is an exciting one that Grove examines more closely. As he explains, most of these epidemic diseases flourish in El Niño conditions because their vectors tend to benefit from the altered hydrological conditions that result.

After the nineteenth century, the human toll of El Niño events subsequently diminished, despite the occurrence of more frequent and intense El Niño and La Niña events than in any of the preceding five hundred years. Adamson explores these trends in his study of the twentieth century, where improved meteorological observation networks help him to find El Niño events associated with devastating droughts, floods, and famines around the world. It was the manifestation of these conditions in Peru in 1924-25 that prompted the American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy to prepare the first detailed description of an El Niño event in the area. Five decades passed before the United States and Peru undertook a collaborative effort to research the phenomenon in the wake of Jacob Bjerknes’s linking of El Niño and the Southern Oscillation in 1969. This research coincided with the 1972-73 El Niño, which was associated with widespread drought and the collapse of the Peruvian anchovy fishery. Failure to predict the 1982-83 event prompted further attention to El Niño monitoring and forecasting, which Adamson explains, helped to limit the consequences of subsequent El Niño events in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Since the late nineteenth century, the forecasting of El Niño events has played an integral role in advancing the study of this ocean-atmosphere phenomenon. As Grove showed in his pioneering studies in the field, such as Ecology, Climate and Empire (1997), servants of the East India Company provided the earliest accounts of El Niño’s toll across the British Empire in the late eighteenth century. Under the Raj, these observations became critical to a wider program of mitigating natural disasters, which had become key to the logic of imperial governance. For the colonial state, disaster prevention represented a means to perform the moral obligation of improvement, while limiting the impact of natural disasters on agricultural revenue. Efforts to forecast the monsoon floundered until Gilbert Walker’s mathematical analysis of meteorological relationships in the early twentieth century revealed important patterns, such as the Southern Oscillation—the atmospheric branch of ENSO. Although the seasonal El Niño current off the coast of Peru was well known to fishers, navigators, and scientists, it remained understood as a regional, rather than global, phenomenon until the data-sharing exercise of the International Geophysical Year revealed its extent. The relative strength of El Niño and Southern Oscillation also influenced these pulses of scientific research, with the latter emerging from a period of unusual inactivity in the 1950s.

In the wake of this research, Bjerknes’s landmark 1969 paper made three contributions to the field: it established the relationship between the Southern Oscillation (represented by pressure at Jakarta) and sea surface temperatures in the Pacific; it proposed a mechanism for the relationship between the Southern Oscillation and El Niño, the Walker Circulation; and it presented a model of El Niño development. Further oceanographic testing of Bjerknes’s findings led to the development of the “canonical” El Niño model by oceanographer Klaus Wyrtki. Improved monitoring networks after the 1982/83 event shed light on what became known as ‘La Niña’, and the irregular oscillation of ENSO. The lack of El Niños in the eastern Pacific after 1998 prompted Japanese and Indian scientists to propose an El Niño-like mode in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Ocean Dipole, as well as an El Niño that only affects the central Pacific.

Despite improvements in forecasting, the strength of the 1997-98 event (and a subsequent La Niña) contributed to the growing public awareness of the phenomenon by the end of the twentieth century. Although increased social resilience and better forecasting have mostly reduced the impacts of El Niño, Adamson argues that catastrophizing media reportage of ENSO has fashioned a gendered and destructive identity for the phenomenon in the public imagination. He also points to the ways in which certain scientific terminology, such as an index, creates illusions of simplicity and predictability from complexity and uncertainty. In his final chapter, Adamson suggests that the wider socioeconomic and political context will continue to shape El Niño imaginaries, regardless of the extent to which anthropogenic climate change is affecting ENSO. After all, “El Niño is as much of an idea as it is a climatic force” (p. 213).

Clearly, El Niño and World History is the product of decades of exhaustive research that brings together evidence from a range of disciplines. Adamson and Grove’s partner, Vinita Damodaran, are to be congratulated for their endeavors to honor Grove’s work and to advance the exciting field of climate history. Engagingly written and thoughtfully illustrated, this text will become a vital reference for geographers and historians studying the state of El Niño science and its history, while highlighting potential areas for further interdisciplinary research on El Niño and the Southern Oscillation in a warming world.


[1]. Vinita Damodaran et al., “The 1780s: Global Climate Anomalies, Floods, Droughts, and Famines,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Climate History, ed. Sam White, Christian Pfister, and Franz Mauelshagen (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 517-50.

Citation: Ruth Morgan. Review of Grove, Richard; Adamson, George, El Niño in World History. H-Water, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

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