2007: A Pissant Little Drought By Historical Standards

As your front law withers from the effects of prolonged drought and unseasonably high temperatures, just be glad you didn’t live in Virginia in 1607. It turns out that the Jamestown settlers had it a lot worse. As you prepare to dine on turkey this Thanksgiving, just remember: 400 years ago, Capt. John Smith and his buddies were starving.

Several years ago, Debra Willard, a Reston-based paleoecologist, and her colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed sediment cores from around the Chesapeake Bay, using pollen and dinoflagellate cysts (a type of algae) as indicators of regional precipitation, estuarine salinity and dissolved oxygen. They found that the Bay region, over the past several thousand years, has gone through broad cycles of wet and dry periods. These dry periods lasted for centuries: the first from 200 B.C. to 300 A.D., the second from 800 to 1200 A.D., with two more extended dry intervals around 1400 and 1600 A.D., she wrote in “Late-Holocene climate and ecosystem history from Chesapeake Bay sediment cores, USA.”

The first English settlers in North America apparently had the bad luck to establish colonies during a period of severe drought, according to S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery in their book, “Unstoppable Global Warming.” The settlers at Roanoke Colony in North Carolina arrived in 1587, they write. Tree ring data indicate the most extreme growing-season drought in 800 years.

“This drought persisted for 3 years, from 1587 to 1589, and is the driest 3-year episode in the entire 800-year construction. The tree ring reconstruction also indicates that the settlers of Jamestown Colony had the monumental bad luck to arrive in April 1607 during the driest 7-year period in 770 years.”

Prolonged droughts have been a feature of the Mid-Atlantic climate for millennia. I could find no mention of anything comparable to 1607 drought conditions in the 400 years since. Apparently, we’re still basking in the wet curve of the climatic cycle. But it may not be long before we swing back to another extended dry period.

I could handle the change if Virginia wound up with a climate like southern California. But if we combine years of drought with the same old summer heat and mugginess, I just may have to move to New Zealand.

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2 responses to “2007: A Pissant Little Drought By Historical Standards”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    One of the issues with the drought is ,once again, how we grossly underestimate the amount of infrastructure needed for growth.

    I’m sure folks are familiar with the concept behind designating flood plains using a 100-year storm standard to delineate the boundaries of risk/damage.

    We did not start out with the 100 year standard.. it took a while with the prodding of insurance companies and a subsidized flood insurance program to get there.

    We fail in the same way with water supply planning and droughts.

    Some (not all) water supply infrastructure is simply not designed to be able to sustain water supply through droughts of record.

    And the reason why is that in doing that… much more storage infrastructure would be needed – and ironically much strictly pollution laws because right now water supply projects are strategically located near the few remaining unpolluted sources.

    This is why Newport News did not want to run a pipe up the James (too polluted.. with kepone, etc) but instead dam up Cohoke Creek on the Mattaponi… which.. by the way is not designed to sustain a drought of record either.

    They also chose to do this instead of instituting common-sense conservation policies – like using storm water for irrigation, etc.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Thank you, Larry, for reminding me what the point of the post is: The historical data show that the Chesapeake region is prone to cyclical periods of drought, and we need to prepare for it. That means treating water as the finite resource that it is, and developing institutions, infrastructure and lifestyles that will enable us to survive much longer droughts than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.

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