Climate Change’s Fatal Synergy

Known as the Kyŏngsin Famine, the years 1670 and 1671 were among the harshest that Korea ever endured, an episode of climate change and calamity that delivered a mortal blow to the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910). Koreans faced a hostile nature, a benignly invisible backdrop for much of Chosŏn history that snapped suddenly into view. Lurking behind the scene was global cooling, a changing climate that packed an eco-punch of snowstorms, droughts and earthquakes, and left a hellish aftermath.

Climatologists have noted a cold nadir of human history in the 1600s, the coolest period during the so-called Little Ice Age (c. 1500-1850). This Little Ice Age coincided with a decrease in solar and volcanic activity, and a resulting drop in average temperatures (1.5 °C below those of today). According to the latest work in the field, Global Crisis: War, Climate and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Paker estimates that a third of world population died due to the “fatal synergy” between hostile climate and belligerent humans.

Global cooling manifested differently in Chosŏn Korea, which begs for comparison and reflection. In considering global changes as sweeping as the Little Ice Age, we must note the heterogeneity of impact – the notion that global environmental changes manifest differently across time and space. In the case of Korea, the harshest of global cooling events occurred in the late 1600s, and was unprecedented in its extent: unlike previous disasters, the entire peninsula underwent a fatal synergy of frost, famine, earthquakes and epidemics, causing probably the most severe famine in Korean history.

The death knell rang early in 1670 with a strange series of celestial changes. Starting on New Year’s Day, an important day of ritual and divination, a bad omen hung high in the air – a halo with red filling and blue outer rims. For the rest of the month, Korean meteorologists were surprised to see either a solar or lunar halo occurring almost every day. Most strikingly, during the first week of 1670, the Korean peninsula shook in fear as earthquakes shattered windows and doors throughout the kingdom, and an avalanche of comets lit up the night sky. In Pyŏngan Province, the northeastern region of Korea, a meteorite fell in a mass of flames, spreading fear like a prairie fire across the peninsula.

The omens turned out to be real prophecies. In late February (of the Lunar calendar), Seoul woke up to a bad day of heavy snow and bean-sized hail when spring was in full swing. A few days later, a strong earthquake and a lethal hail as big as bird eggs struck Kyŏngsang province, the southeastern region. Climate anomalies worsened during the critical month of April when farmers traditionally harvested winter crops such as wheat and barley, and sowed new seeds for summer crops such as millet, rice and beans. That month, all eight provinces of Chosŏn endured severe hail, frost and snow, which decimated the sprouting crops. As late as July, when the harvest season began, the crops that managed to survive were struck again by summer frosts and hail.  These events were catastrophic to agriculture in Korea, where the late months of spring were a crucial period for germinating crops.

The fatal synergy of multiple weather disruptions resulting from climate change is crystal clear in the case of the Korean famine in 1670-1671. Cold climate shocks played a constant rhythm of disaster over an unrelenting pedal tone of drought that disabled plant growth throughout the season. Animal diseases played second fiddle to the rising crescendo of human fatalities (as high as 100,000 in 1671), and earthquakes added syncopated seismic pulses to the continuing ecological disaster. The crisis of 1670-71 was a rare case where nature seemed to have packed its entire repertoire of disasters into two years of fatal cacophony.

In fact, what sets this disaster apart from others in Korean and perhaps world history is not only the fatal synergy of events, but also the extent to which disaster gored every corner of the kingdom. By the end of 1670, an unprecedented number of 360 villages, which includes every village in all eight provinces of Chosŏn, suffered from famine. Though the fatality rates of famine varied, scholars estimate about 100,000 deaths in 1671, and higher figures for 1670. In places like Kyŏngsang province where good data survive, we know that at least 25% of the population (as many as 242,500) was starving in May 1670. As the crisis likely led to weaker immune systems, epidemics also grew quickly throughout the peninsula, infecting 52,000 during the two years and killing about half of them. Just within Seoul, unnamed epidemics infected more than one-fifth of the population. Famine and fatalities were most severe in the southern provinces. In Chŏlla province, the breadbasket of the Korean peninsula, as many as 54% of the total population died.

 

As with any story, narrating histories is a powerful act of remembering and reflecting. Particularly, stories of disaster often serve as cautionary tales, if not the guiding light, for prospection. Does the Korean famine of 1670-1671 offer any unique lessons to historians, policymakers or the public?

Plenty, I think. For historians who write about climate change, the Korean famine may serve as a reminder to look at the fringes of the discipline for striking case studies, or local manifestations of global phenomena. For Korean politicians and developers, this episode should warn against amnesia about Korea’s ecological vulnerabilities. For instance, the Kyŏngsin famine demonstrates that the Korean peninsula is prone to significant earthquakes, and studies suggest that the peninsula experienced “unusually high seismicity from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.” Despite this, less than 10% of Korean buildings are earthquake-proof.

Most importantly, Korean history may serve a broader purpose of illuminating the growing discussions of climate change. The Little Ice age is an intriguing counterpoint to the current problem of global warming. The ‘global cooling’ of the 1600s teaches us that a change of only 1.5°C in average temperatures may catalyze cascading effects in the environment. We must also remember that climate change strikes at different times and places, and sometimes with vicious synergistic power that cannot be adequately measured or extrapolated using our best technologies or scientific understanding. We must fight the historical amnesia about climate-induced catastrophes and use lessons of past disasters to prepare for prospective changes.

 

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