________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 1 . . . . August 29, 2008

cover The Curse of Akkad: Climate Upheavals That Rocked Human History.

Peter Christie.
Toronto, ON: Annick, 2008.
144 pp., pbk. & hc., $11.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-118-1 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-119-8.

Subject Headings:
Climate and civilization-History-Juvenile literature.
Climactic changes-History-History-Juvenile literature.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

*** /4


No one knows for sure what caused many of the great droughts that have rocked human civilizations as far back as ancient Akkad, but research indicates that these climate changes were felt around the world.

The 2200 BCE drought affected Akkad and Egypt, as well as early civilizations in Greece and the Indus Valley. Evidence from seabeds and glacier ice shows that the dry climate reached from Ghana to Ethiopia in Africa, and as far away as Tibet and South America. Some scientists blame a regular 1450-year climate cycle that may be triggered by changes in the sun's energy or a shift in ocean currents.


The climate change that the world is experiencing today is at least partly due to human activity that releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the past, climate change was caused by natural phenomena, but the impact on human beings was at times devastating. Christie, a science writer and editor from Kingston, ON, expresses hope that people today will learn from past climate crises.

      Following an introductory chapter about the current state and forecasts for our warming planet, Christie jumps to prehistoric times, when homo sapiens migrated north during the last ice age (118,000-15,000 years ago) as drought and desertification blanketed northern Africa. He speculates that this migration could have been a factor in the extinction of the Neanderthal people who previously inhabited Europe and Asia. As becomes clear in the narrative, scientists and anthropologists often speculate on cause and effect, using the best information available, but are reluctant to issue definitive statements. Asides are used to explain, sometimes repetitively, the science behind climate change. Thus the reader learns about core analysis from glaciers, the seafloor, and trees that all record evidence of the temperatures and dryness of the past. In more recent years, written records and modern weather measurements help to document climate changes.

      The causes of historic climate changes are numerous. Ice ages are likely caused by small changes in Earth's tilt and its orbit around the sun. It is not always clear what causes a period of drought, but the impact on people can be devastating. The ancient empires of Akkad, in what today is Iraq, collapsed over four thousand years ago as two centuries of drought ravaged the area, causing food shortages and migration. More recently, the Mayan civilization collapsed at least in part due to drought.

      A medieval warm period that lasted some 500 years until about 1300 warmed up Europe enough to sustain a grape and wine industry in Great Britain. The same period, however, brought epic drought to the American southwest where the Anasazi people abandoned their cities in search of more hospitable lands.

      Changing ocean currents may have been responsible for the cooling of the north Atlantic that coincided with the Little Ice Age that reached its coolest in 17th and 18th centuries. Reduced sunspot activity could have triggered the changing ocean currents. Famine, plague, and superstitious witch hunts are all associated with this period of less than ideal weather and climate.

      The impact of volcanoes on the earth's climate can be enormous. Volcanic dust and haze from the eruption of Mount Krakatau in 1881 contributed to more than a dozen years of colder temperatures around the world, and the particulate matter spewed into the atmosphere contributed to hazy skies and dramatic sunsets for three years. A much larger explosion at Toba in current Indonesia some 71,000 years ago almost caused a "volcanic winter" lasting about six years and caused human population as well as that of many other species to crash.

      El Niño climate cycles are the centre of considerable study today. These are the shortest climate upheavals, lasting just weeks or as long as a few years. El Niño is associated with weakening winds over the tropical Pacific Ocean causing huge shifts in temperature, winds, clouds and humidity. This can trigger devastating weather events including flooding and drought. Famine, and massive deaths in India in the late 18th century were likely caused by El Niño.

      Overall, this historic look at climate change is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature geared to a young audience. The two-colour illustrations and maps are appropriate. The scientific asides are especially informative and interesting. The narrative suffers a bit from repetition and speculation, but these are minor quibbles. Christie includes two pages of youthful titles for further reading and a four-page selected bibliography of academic or specialized resources organized to correspond to the chapters of this work. A practical index is also included.


Val Ken Lem is the Collection Evaluation Librarian at Ryerson University.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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