The end of the Old Kingdom

About 4,200 years ago, a drought hit Ancient Egypt that may have led to the collapse of the Old Kingdom, the period of Egyptian rule best known for building the Pyramids of Giza. Much of the information on this drought has been lost to time, but historians have been able to surmise the existence of a devastating drought period coinciding with the end of the the Old Kingdom, based on analysis of sediment in the Nile Delta. This sediment revealed a lack of wetland pollen and an unusual amount of charcoal, indicating that this period was marked by fire and lack of water. And the Egyptians weren’t the only powerful civilization to collapse during this period. The Harappas of modern day India and Pakistan, the Subir of modern day Syria, and the Minoan of modern day Greece all declined at about this time.

The 16th century megadrought

Even though it happened long after Ancient Egypt, we know very little about the drought that hit North America in the 16th century. By analyzing tree ring records, we can tell that it was incredibly widespread, reaching from Canada to Mexico, and spanning nearly the whole of the United States. We also know that it was long lasting, with areas of the southwestern US and Mexico remaining in drought conditions for several decades. The drought coincided with the fall of the Aztec empire (although it was certainly not the only factor–disease and hostile Spanish invaders also played large parts in bringing about the Aztecs’ collapse) as well as failed and nearly-failed attempts at colonization in Roanoke and Jamestown.

The Dust Bowl

In the 1930s, a combination of drought and unsustainable agricultural practices hit the central United States. The dry, eroded topsoil blew off the arid land, causing dust storms and mass migration. The drought hit its height in 1934, considered the worst drought year of the millennium, but continued long after that, including a deadly heat wave in 1936.

The Chinese Drought of 1941

During World War II, a drought hit the Henan province in China. The Henan province is traditionally the breadbasket of China, so this drought led to a famine resulting in 3 million deaths. Conditions were exacerbated by high winds, hailstorms, and locusts. To make matters worse, much of the food that was produced went to soldiers fighting in the war.

The drought in Syria

An extreme drought beginning in 2006 in Syria forced Syrian farmers to flee their farms for the cities. The drought, which was described by the Guardian as “likely…its worst in 900 years”, was likely caused by climate change. In the cities, they found their concerns met with government indifference, sparking protests that eventually erupted into civil war.