Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/December 1901/The Influence of Rainfall on Commerce and Politics




THE causes which control human life and human actions are complex and difficult to grasp; yet, to act reasonably and to progress, man must somehow unravel the tangle of causes and assign to each its true value.

Perhaps, in no department of life are the causes assigned for certain results more varied than in politics. Yet every man with a sense of duty toward his nation feels that he must accept some of the suggested causes as the proper ones, in order that he may form the ideals which guide his actions.

The causes popularly assigned for political and economic changes are almost universally those arising from human actions. A high tariff is assumed as sufficient cause for business prosperity by one class of thinkers, and by another class is assumed to tend toward financial distress. The threat of a silver standard in monetary affairs is considered by one party as a sufficient cause for tremendous business disturbances. With equal certainty these disturbances are considered by another party to be due to the gold standard. Even the success at the polls of a certain political party is assumed by some to be a sufficient cause for general prosperity. One well-known senator has maintained his ability to show, notwithstanding the various phases of opinion through which each of the large political parties has passed, that the success of one particular party at the polls has always been followed by prosperity in the nation, while an opposite result has followed the election of the other party.

It is not my object, nor is it possible for me here, to collect and weigh the evidence which has been given for each of these opinions. My object is to show that, besides those mentioned, there are other forces which act on man in his business and political relations, and that no satisfactory opinion can be formed as to the relative importance of the various causes until these also are considered.

As a professional investigator in science, I am frequently brought to consider the tremendous influences that natural phenomena in the earth, air and sky have on human affairs, and to wonder that these influences on man's political and business relations are not more frequently considered.

One of the fundamental needs of man, in fact a prime necessity, is a sufficient food supply. When food is abundant and hunger is satisfied there is a surplus of energy to expend on other human affairs, and this, I presume, most people will admit is the primary condition of prosperity.

The food-supply at present is obtained almost entirely from the soil, and its growth is intimately dependent on weather conditions. The relation of the food-supply to the weather has been investigated to some extent, and it is found that the factors which most powerfully influence the food-product are temperature and moisture, which latter is derived from rainfall. The annual change in temperature is comparatively regular and certain, so that the factor which, by its changes, most powerfully influences the food-product, is the rainfall.

J. T. Wills investigated the relation of the rainfall to the wheat-product per acre in south Australia for the six winter months (the growing season there), and found that for the seven best years there was a yield of 12.4 bushels of wheat with 18.5 inches of rain; for the next best years there were 10.0 bushels of wheat with 15.4 inches of rain; and for the six worst years there were 6.6 bushels of wheat with 13.5 inches of rain. The product of wheat in the first case was nearly twice as great as in the last. If such a relation holds for the United States, it is easy to understand what great effect a general drought may have on the food product. If the amount of wheat raised in the United State were reduced one half or even one third by a year of deficient rainfall, it is easy to imagine an enormous strain on the business of the country, and with a succession of such years the effect might mean disaster. Such a deficiency in the wheat supply, with wheat at 80 cents a bushel, would mean for a single year a direct loss in wealth of more than $100,000,000; it would mean that nearly all the wheat which is usually shipped abroad would be needed at home; it would mean that thousands of railroad cars and ships which ordinarily transport this grain would lie idle; that hundreds of men who usually handle this grain in transport would be out of employment; that farmers in large numbers would be unable to meet their obligations; and consequently, that banks and business of all kinds would suffer.

But the deficiency in rainfall would not affect the wheat alone; every product of the soil would likewise suffer. Rawson has worked out a simple formula in the case of Barbadoes by means of which the amount of sugar to be exported the next year can be calculated with great accuracy from the rainfall of the current year. This calculation is accurate within six per cent, in most cases. Similar calculations for Jamaica have been made by Maxwell Hall. He shows that 56 inches of rain give 1,441 casks of sugar per acre, while 79 inches give 1,559, or about one-tenth more. This means an increase in the value of the sugar-crop alone of £100,000.

District. Rainfall,
Sheep per
sq. mile.
Increased capacity for every
inch of rain.
South Australia 8 to 10 8 to 9 1 sheep per mile.
New South Wales (1) 13 96 22
New South Wales (2) 20 640 70
Buenos Ayres 34 2630 140

Nor is the influence of rainfall on vegetable life alone to be considered, as is evident from the following data gathered by Wills

Table Comparing Rainfalls, Water-levels and Commercial Crises.

Dates. Departure from Normal. Com-
Dates. Departure from Normal. Com-
in the
in the
of Lake
in the
in the
of Lake
1830 +2.0 1864 -0.3 -2.5 -.08
1831 +5.1 1865 +3.0 -1.4 -.32
1832 +1.9 1866 +4.0 -0.7 -.65
1833 -1.9 1867 +1.6 -0.6 -.21
1834 -6.1 1868 +1.1 +0.9 -.70
1835 -6.8 1869 -1.1 +0.7 -.58
1836 -4.5 1870 -4.7 -2.1 +.33
1837 -0.4 Panic 1871 -7.2 -3.2 +.26
1838 -3.3 1872 -6.0 -2.7 -1.02
1839 -4.5 1873 -2.7 -3.2 -.37 Panic
1840 -2.1 1874 -0.5 -2.6 +.12
1841 +0.8 1875 +0.5 +1.5 -.13
1842 +2.2 1876 -0.3 +5.5 +1.00
1843 +2.1 1877 -2.8 +5.2 +.77
1844 +0.9 1878 -3.2 +2.1 +.46
1845 +1.9 1879 -0.3 +1.4 -.46
1846 +6.0 1880 +3.4 +4.0 -.32
1847 +8.3 1881 +6.4 +6.1 +.20
1848 +7.6 +6.8 1882 +8.0 +5.4 +.57
1849 +6.6 +15.6 1883 +6.6 +3.9 +.72
1850 +4.7 +22.8 1884 +1.0 +2.7 +.82
1851 +1.3 +26.4 1885 -2.4 +0.4 +1.07
1852 -0.8 +21.5 1886 -2.8 -1.8 +1.31
1853 0.0 +9.0 1887 -1.5 -3.4 + .67
1854 -0.4 -1.0 1888 +0.4 -3.1 + .06
1855 -1.0 -2.2 1889 +2.9 -3.0 -.49
1856 -2.4 +2.1 1890 +3.9 -2.5 -.40
1857 +0.5 +5.2 Panic 1891 +1.9 -1.4 -1.16
1858 +4.9 +5.3 1892 -1.7 -1.0 -1.27
1859 +4.2 +2.2 1893 -4.7 -2.8 -.99 Panic
1860 +0.9 -0.1 +1.07 1894 -7.4 -5.2 -.87
1861 -0.5 +2.4 +1.05 1895 -8.1 -6.0 -1.91
1862 -1.2 +3.5 +1.01 1896 -6.4 -5.2
1863 -2.1 0.0 +0.54 1897

concerning the number of sheep which can be pastured per square mile with different rainfalls.[1]

Such investigations have not been made for the United States, but the data indicate clearly the enormous variations in the food-supply, both vegetable and animal, which attend variations in rainfall; and they suggest how these variations must affect the producer, the transporter, the merchant and the consumer. Hence it is easy to imagine the great influence which variations in rainfall may have on commerce and through this on politics.

The accompanying table gives the variations in the amount of rainfall in the Ohio Valley and in the Mississippi Valley which lie about the center of the food-producing area in the United States and include a large part of this area. The data are derived from tables prepared by Professor A. J. Henry, of the United States Weather Bureau, and published by the Bureau as Bulletin 'D,' entitled 'Eainfall of the United States,' Washington, 1897. The average rainfall for each district was made up from a number of stations in the district, the same stations being used so far as the records would permit throughout the period 1830 to 1896. The sharp, irregular fluctuations which characterize the rainfall were toned down by Professor Henry by taking the means of several successive years. This process is called 'smoothing' and it renders more evident the long-period oscillations. The average rainfall for each district was obtained, and the departures of the rainfall for each year from tins mean are given in the accompanying table. The plus sign indicates that the rainfall for the given year was above the mean, and the minus sign that it was below. The figures give the amounts in inches and tenths of inches. The figures for the Mississippi Valley from 1848 to 1857 are derived from the observations at one station only.[2]

The table also gives the departures from the mean value of the level of the water in Lake Michigan. These data have been carefully collected by the engineers on the lakes and were kindly furnished by General John M. Wilson, Chief of Engineers, U. S. Army. The figures show, in feet, the departures of the annual means from the general average. The lake may be regarded as an enormous rain-gauge. When the rainfall is in excess, the water level rises above the mean; but during droughts evaporation exceeds the supply, and the level falls below the mean. Alongside of these data are indicated the dates of the severe financial panics in the United States. The dates of these panics were taken from one of the current histories of the United States.

The table shows that the observations in the Ohio Valley began during a period when the rainfall exceeded the average amount. This lasted through 1832, after which a severe drought set in, lasting until 1840. The severe financial panic of 1837 occurred in the midst of this drought and about two years after the greatest deficiency of rainfall in the Ohio Valley. The rainfall statistics for New England show that there was also a very severe and protracted drought in the eastern states at that time, culminating in 1836 to 1837, when the annual rainfall was nearly nine inches below the normal. In 1841 began a period of excess in rainfall lasting until 1853, after which a period of drought set in, culminating in 1855 in the Mississippi Valley, and in 1856 in the Ohio Valley. This was followed by the severe financial panic of 1857. This was in turn followed by another period of excess in rainfall, lasting until 1860 in the Ohio Valley, and until 1863 in the Mississippi Valley, when another period of deficient rainfall set in with the greatest deficiency in 1863 and 1864. Any commercial effect attending this drought was overshadowed by the tremendous disturbances in the life of our country attending the civil war. Another period of excessive rainfall occurred between 1866 and 1869, followed by a severe drought which reached its maximum in the Ohio Valley and Mississippi Valley in 1871, and in the Lake Region in 1872. This was followed by the severe panic of 1873. This in turn was followed by another period of excessive rainfall which began in the Mississippi Valley in 1875, in the Lake Region in 1876 and in the Ohio Valley in 1879 and lasted until between 1884 and 1887. This was accompanied and followed by a period of unusual business activity and enterprise, especially in our western states. With 1887 began a long and severe drought, lasting nearly ten years and reaching its maximum severity in 1895. During this interval the United States was well covered by observing stations and permitted Professor Henry to make an investigation of the deficiency of rainfall for the entire United States. He says, in speaking of this interval, 1887 to 1896, "It appears beyond question that there has been a very general deficiency of rain in the great majority of the years and in almost all the districts. Moreover, there does not seem to be any law of compensation by which a deficit in one district is balanced by a surplus in another. The South Atlantic and Gulf States, in particular, show a marked deficit throughout almost the entire period." This drought was relieved in some sections about 1889 to 1891, as in the Ohio Valley, by an excess of rainfall for two or three years. In the midst of this drought occurred the severe financial panic of 1893 to 1894. This panic occurred one or two years before the greatest deficiency of rainfall and thus differed from the preceding panics which occurred one or two years after the greatest deficiency. But a very marked depression in business activity continued throughout the interval 1893 to 1897 inclusive.

It is thus evident that every severe financial panic has been closely associated with a protracted period of deficient rainfall, and there has been no period of protracted drought without a severe financial panic except a period, the effects of which were masked by the large disturbances attending our civil war. Hence, it is difficult to avoid the conviction that periods of deficient rainfall are the paramount causes of the periods of commercial distress, especially when the means by which the two are connected are so reasonable.

As another link in the chain of causation, it is interesting to trace the coincidences between the periods of deficient rainfall, deficient food supply and financial panics and the subsequent changes in political life.

Concerning the panic of 1837, I quote the following from a current history, "The panic of 1837 was a severe blow to Van Buren and his party. A slight return of the panic in 1839 completed the work; and though his party stood manfully by him and renominated him for the presidency, he was defeated by the Whigs. . . like Jackson, on a wave of enthusiasm, 'Tippecanoe and Tyler too' were triumphantly elected."[3]

In the presidential election following the financial panic of 1857, that of 1860, the Democratic party which had previously been in power was disorganized and broken into factions, and the new Republican party sprang triumphantly into power. However, it is probable that the great issue of slavery had a large share in these occurrences.

The first national election after the financial panic of 1873 was that of 1874, when the Republican majority of 107 in the House of Representatives was turned into a Democratic majority of 74, and two years later the Democratic party failed in obtaining the presidency only by the narrowest margin, although the country at the previous presidential election had been overwhelmingly Republican.

The political effects following the commercial crisis of 1893 to 1894 were very striking. The Democrats who were then in power, realizing that they were held responsible for the commercial distress, abandoned every important issue for which they had previously stood, and, even repudiating their former leader and his opinions, nominated a new leader, the champion of a new issue. But this in no way saved them from overwhelming defeat at the next election. The marked disturbances in civil life following the commercial panic of 1893 was shown by the 'Coxey army of 1894' and the Chicago riots.

It is interesting to read the various causes given for financial panics and political upheavals even by historians. In 1837, the cause was said to be the State Banks. In 1857, it was the too rapid railroad expansion. In 1873, it was the reaction from the lavish expenditures attending the civil war and the contraction of the currency. In 1893, it was the low tariff and the 'free silver craze.' All of these may have been contributory causes, but if my assumption is correct that deficiency of rainfall is the paramount cause in this chain of events, then vast political and historical changes have been brought about, and the thoughts of men have been swayed by opinions which are akin to superstitions, because they attribute to human action what is due largely to natural causes beyond the control of man.

The recent period of financial distress (1893-97) in the United States was also a period of financial distress in Europe. This may have been due to the fact that Europe depends to a large extent on the United States for its food supply; or to the fact (which recent observations seem to indicate) that long periods of drought and excessive rainfall embrace a large part of the world, if not the whole world, in their operations, and are due perhaps to changes taking place in the sun.

The following extract from an American newspaper reprinted in the English periodical 'Nature,' 1895 (Vol. 53, p. 78), shows that severe droughts in other parts of the world were coincident with the one in the United States:

The long drought, which has caused so much inconvenience and damage this fall, seems to have prevailed all round the world, if not in every part of it. Europe has experienced it almost equally with this country, and in Australia it has been more severe than here. So great was the distress in New South Wales, that the Government appointed a Sunday in September as a day of prayer for rain, and special services in accord with the proclamation were held in all the churches of every denomination in Sydney and throughout the province. The drought occurred in the antipodean spring, and greatly retarded planting operations, as well as doing great general damage. In many districts the grass was literally burned off the earth, and the mortality among stock was great. The railway trains carried supplies of water from lakes and rivers to all stricken points along the lines, selling it at the rate of 25 cents a thousand gallons. The water supply of many towns entirely failed, the inconvenience experienced was acute everywhere, and many agriculturists were ruined.

The existence of this drought is confirmed by recent meteorological reports from Australia. (See 'Science' of January 11, 1901, p. 75. A note concerning a simultaneous drought in Great Britain is found in 'Nature,' 1895, Vol. 53, p. 597.). These years were followed by rapid changes in political parties in Europe, especially in Great Britain and France.

On the other hand, the parties which are in power, when the increased rainfall and subsequent prosperity reappear, claim and get the credit for it, and are usually returned to power by large majorities. In France, the present ministry has been in power for several years; in England, the conservatives have been returned with immense majorities; in Canada, the liberals were equally successful; and in our own country, the republicans were returned on a 'tidal wave.'

To designate as a superstition the belief in the capacity of the various political parties in power to make prosperity may be extreme, but certainly careful thinkers will join in the wish that such relations to natural phenomena as are here outlined might be carefully studied by trained investigators, using well-known scientific methods. Perhaps, then a unity of belief as to the causes of commercial distress might be obtained equaling that which has prevailed since Darwin's day as to the causes of variety and changes of form in the animal kingdom.

Would that some wise benefactor would found an institution purely for research, where all such questions of man's relation to the universe could be carefully investigated by trained investigators using the well-tried and fruitful methods of science!

Such an institution should be perfectly free and independent of the control of any other institution or party and especially should it be free from Government control. No man should be appointed to it because he believes in certain current theories, as, for example, free trade, and would give free trade statistics while the free trade party was in power, only to be dismissed and replaced by a man who would give high tariff statistics while the high tariff party was in power. His loyalty should be to the truth alone, and he should be allowed perfect freedom of expression for his results and conclusions, however much they might differ from accepted beliefs.

Such an institution, with an adequate endowment, devoted without let or hindrance to the search for truth in every field of human activity, would be of inestimable value to the nation.

Our universities, performing the threefold functions of training in methods, diffusing knowledge and investigating the laws of nature, are undoubtedly an immense power for progress in the nation. But they have strangely neglected the atmosphere and its relations to man. In only one university of our nation is there a professorship of climatology, and that of so recent a date as to be almost of the present. Is it any wonder that the influence of our atmosphere on health, commerce and politics is so little known? The work in meteorology in America heretofore has been almost entirely outside of our universities; but surely this cannot last. Our universities should somehow find means to give the study and teaching of meteorology their rightful and independent places.

  1. These facts are largely derived from Hann's 'Climatology,' a standard work on climate. (See Ward's English Translation.)
  2. Professor Henry also gives the rainfall for New England. Although the oscillations run roughly parallel to those in the interior valleys the data are not reproduced here, (1) because Mr. E. B. Weston has shown that the early measurements are probably deficient on account of the methods of measuring the snowfall; (2) because New England has largely ceased to be an agricultural region.
  3. 'A History of the United States' by Allen C. Thomas, Boston, 1899.