The meteorological concept of the El Niño state of the atmosphere/Pacific Ocean with its global influences has only been fully developed over the last half century. But once climatologists and others recognized its signature, they were able to look back into those natural recorders of weather/climate variability (tree rings, lake and ocean sediments, glacial ice, etc.) to produce a chronology of suspected El Niño events over the past millennium and more. Once a tentative chronology for El Niño had been established, it was next possible to look at historic records for indirect collaboration of event occurrence and impact assessments of those events.
In El Niño in History: Storming Through the Ages author Cesar N. Caviedes provides a comprehensive historical account of El Nino. His well-researched and fascinating book shows us how El Niño has affected weather across the globe for thousands of years and how those events have affected humanity. He does this by linking the El Niño chronology to impacts such as the 19th-century shipwrecks off Africa; successful European exploration of the Incan empire during the 16th Century; World War I-era droughts in Australia; recent famines in, or adjacent to, Africa's Sahel Desert; and catastrophic floods in China in the 1400s.
This book is not a complete scientific treatise on El Niño, although it does present some basic El Niño science using clear, descriptive explanations in order to demonstrate the linkages between event and impact. Nor is it a journalistic approach using stories of personal tragedies faced during El Niño conditions such as J. Madeleine Nash's recent book reviewed elsewhere on this site: El Niño: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker. Caviedes' work is more academic in tone than Nash's, but every bit as interesting.
I found this book very well-researched and well-written for the most part -- the author becoming a little too dry in his discussion of El Niño linkages to shipwrecks. The depth of his historical analysis is exemplary. Caviedes, professor and former chair of the University of Florida's Department of Geography, brings together a wealth of existing information, references, and clues about past El Niño occurrences and their impact on political, military, social, economic, and environmental history.
Caviedes skilfully links historical sources, traditional accounts, archaeological findings, and geological evidence in North America, South America and Europe to bring us an understanding of the toll that El Niño and La Niña events have taken on societies in various parts of the world. He then shows how this phenomenon has swayed the course of history and human affairs, including the extraordinary discovery of Easter Island; Pizarro's conquest of the Incas; the defeat of both Napoleon and Hitler in Russia; and the sinking of the Titanic.
The breadth of his historical analysis should appeal to a wide ranging readership including but not limited too historians, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, some economists and political scientists as well as climatologists, ecologists and biologists of various specializations. If any of the above fields stir your curiosity, then El Niño in History is a must read and will likely become an important reference on your bookshelf.
I think anyone who reads this book will come away with a new perspective on the global and local influences on society wrought by El Niño. Caviedes skilfully shows that the phenomenon has altered the historic path societies and civilizations have taken to reach today's world. From the book's many insights, perhaps we can take note of what has gone before so that we may be better prepared for future events that forming in the Pacific Ocean.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
October 1, 2002