Severe drought, famine may reoccur, professor says

Tree-ring data, rainfall records, climate used to find information



Deepti Singh, a WSU Vancouver professor, said the catastrophes she studied were caused by natural conditions, but today, climate change is a cause for concern.

ISAAC SEMMLER, Evergreen reporter

A possible reprise of the worst-known drought and famine may be resurfacing, according to WSU researchers.

Deepti Singh, a professor at WSU Vancouver’s School of the Environment, has spent the last year and a half studying droughts and famines that have occurred around the world in the past several hundred years.

“ ‘The Late Victorian Holocaust: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World’ is a book that me and my co-authors found that showed us severe impacts on people in a period known as the Great Drought,” she said. “I wanted to look into this to understand the cause and severity of this disaster and see if there were any other patterns before that.”

Tree-ring data, rainfall records and climate reconstructions were methods Singh and her co-authors used as they could be examined to find data dating back nearly 800 years.

“We spent a lot of time studying drought patterns to understand the complications people back then had to face,” Singh said.

After taking the time to find any disasters like the one in the late 1800s, Singh found numerous patterns. However, she noticed they were all recoverable.

“The difference between the droughts we found several hundred years ago compared to the one in 1876 was that the people could all recover from it,” she said. “However, these patterns led up to one huge disaster to multiple civilizations.”

The catastrophes she and her colleagues studied were all caused by natural conditions, not climate change. But with global warming factoring itself in the picture now, Singh said there is cause for concern in the future.

“With sea levels rising, temperatures increasing and greenhouse gas concentrations inclining, she said, “there is reason to worry about several El Nino events happening quite frequently in the near future.”

Singh said she will be studying droughts around the world to be better prepared for the future.

“I’d like people to keep in mind that there are droughts happening all the time, but they can recover from it,” she said. “However, the event we studied had consecutive disasters occurring simultaneously which made it very hard to rebuild and that will be the key to potentially predict when we are on the brink of another catastrophic event.”

Singh’s paper was later supported by a fellowship from Columbia University’s Lamont- Doherty Earth Observatory where she was able to collaborate with numerous climate scientists.

“Columbia University has the highest concentration of climate scientists, so I had a lot of great people to work with and collect data which was a good milestone to get my paper recognized,” she said.

Singh said it was a good experience to work with them, but this research leaves them somewhat uneasy for the road ahead.