REVIEW: Don Garden, Droughts, Floods & Cyclones: El Niños that Shaped our Colonial Past, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, 414 pp., ISBN 978 1 921 509 38 4.

CHRIS O’BRIEN1

Don Garden’s Droughts, Floods and Cyclones is an arresting read. As lucid as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon is complex, it details the manifold manifestations of El Niño – flood, fire, drought, heatwaves, blizzards, cyclones-during three meteorologically significant periods between the mid-1860s and 1903. Focused on eastern Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tahiti, it encompasses a diverse array of climates, economies, societies and ecologies. Crucially, this opus demonstrates how varied the effects of global scale El Niño events have been across time and space. This history shows not just variability between regions, but also variability within regions. In addition we see that the manifestations can be vastly different in the same place from one El Niño event to the next and from one La Niña to another. Moreover, it charts the broader ecological and social consequences of ENSO and human responses to these monumental events. Capturing this chaotic complexity is a remarkable achievement. Not only does it illuminate at the level of the specific and contingent rather than the general; also, it rigorously conveys the randomness inherent in weather.

Recent historical studies of ENSO reflect its intricate, multi-dimensional nature. In Currents of Change (1996), Michael Glantz examines El Niño, rightly, as a global phenomenon, explaining how it came to be recognised, outlining its various phases, how it can be forecast, its place in international science and the broader social and economic implications of El Niño. Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts (2001), an inspiration for Droughts, Floods and Cyclones, ambitiously and persuasively argues that El Niño droughts in India, China and North Africa during the period of modern European imperialism laid the basis of the third world. With its global focus, S. George Philander’s Our Affair With El Niño (2004) is distinguished by its bringing together different ways of knowing to the ENSO phenomenon. Droughts, Floods and Cyclones fills a void in its concentration on the western Pacific. At a time when the effects of ENSO are routinely described on almost national and even supra-national scales,2 this narrative history shows just how complex and variable the effects of ENSO can be across both time and space, even within small geographic regions.

Singed by the 1982-1983 ENSO, the author speaks with the power of experience. Recounting how the searing flames accompanying the drought and heatwaves of the 1982-1983 ENSO twice threatened his life and charred his material possessions to ashes in February 1983, the “Introduction” encapsulates the dire consequences El Niño holds for both humans and the natural world. Revealing that he did not come to understand the scale and seriousness of El Niño until reading Late Victorian Holocausts, Don Garden also shows how recently substantial awareness about El Niño outside the worlds of Climatology and Meteorology arose. It is an old phenomenon only recently recognised and far from understood. The chapters that follow certainly enhance our understanding of El Niño in Oceania.

Chapter 1 renders the work accessible to non–specialists. Offering a lucid explanation of the physical mechanisms of ENSO, as well as a brief history of its discovery, this chapter also explains how ENSO is currently understood to interact with more recently recognised phenomena such as the Inter-Decadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO) and the Indian Ocean Diopole (IOP). The different phases of ENSO events, including El Niño and its cooling of waters over the western Pacific and simultaneous warming of the central/eastern Pacific as well as, later, its reversal (La Niña) are clearly outlined. Technical as this might sound, the account is straightforward and provides necessary context. Garden also explains the methods of identifying ENSO events prior to the development of reliable barometers. Further, he outlines the problems associated with differentiating and defining ENSO events generally, from floods, droughts, heatwaves and other events as well as the differences between New Zealand and Australia.

ENSO has wreaked havoc on Australia in different ways. Chapter 2 demonstrates how through a detailed case-study of four regions between 1864 and 1869. Burra, South Australia (SA), experienced serious drought from mid-1864 to April 1866 and again during most of 1868-69. Northern Victoria and the Riverina, an adjacent part of New South Wales (NSW), suffered drought from 1864 until La Niña rains broke the drought. The rainfall history of the Hunter Valley (central eastern NSW), not only departed from the pattern of the other two regions but also illustrates how the effects of both El Niño and La Niña vary from one part of a region to another. The fourth Australian region studied, the Mary River and Burnet River (southeast Queensland), experienced a shorter period of drought (from October 1867 to January 1868). Garden outlines some of the varied consequences and responses, including the adoption of Goyder’s Line of reliable rainfall in SA; concerns about water conservation and management in Victoria and NSW, along with emerging awareness that droughts were natural and cyclical; animated, though speculative, commentaries about the relationship between trees, rainfall and water supply in the Hunter Valley press, many echoing George Perkins Marsh’s recently published Man and Nature (1864).

Things were even more complex in New Zealand. It was not a case, indeed, that El Niño in New Zealand brought only rain and drought. As chapter 3 illustrates, El Niño in New Zealand is marked more by extreme weather events in which both rain and drought play a role. To illustrate the complexity of the event, places that commonly experience drought during El Niño events can sometimes also experience floods. For instance, the worst South Island snowfalls and west coast rains have accompanied El Niño, including during the two periods of it between 1864 and 1869. By sketching a history of what happened where and when, this work helps to identify the real influence of El Niño on New Zealand weather: it alters the wind systems, usually bringing strong, even violent, southwest and southerly winds along with cells that can swing the winds southeasterly and deluge parts of the East Coasts. Narrative history provides an explanation. As in Australia, these events caused economic hardship and trauma. The consequent anxiety about weather, climate and the “foreign” environment among the Britons who endured them, offers a fascinating view of how newcomers to New Zealand tried to come to grips with their environment.

As Chapter 4’s title indicates, the story in the tropical Pacific is one of “Cyclones and Drought”. While there were no official meteorological records kept in Fiji and Tahiti, newspaper, government and consular reports fill us in. While there are gaps in these records too, Garden shows that different patterns coincided with the El Niño events of the mid and late 1860s in both Fiji and Tahiti. Fiji suffered drought overall and in certain reagions, intense cyclones. Tahiti experienced a marked increase in cyclone frequency, as well as intensity, with more general surges in humidity and a diminishing of winds.

Notions of interconnection come to the fore in Chapter 5. Beginning with an outline of the devastating effects of El Niño droughts in India and China in 1877 and 1878, it demonstrates that what brought calamity in one place might have milder effects in Australia. In contrast to the hardships in India and China, drought affected Burra and ‘settled’ South Australia in 1876 only. Throughout Northern Victoria and the Riverina, rain and drought varied markedly across time and space. While inland parts of the Hunter Valley suffered sustained drought throughout this period, places close to the coast experienced a pattern of a few very dry months interspersed with more months of above average rainfall. While much of Queensland was desiccated by drought, this ENSO brought only brief dry spells to the Mary/Burnett region. The effects were different across these regions and quite different from the preceding study period. Significantly, disaster in the Northern Hemisphere compelled observers such as Henry Blanford in India to correspond with Australian observers such as Charles Todd to identify teleconnections between the weather in distant locations – the genesis of the conceptual framework in which the ENSO phenomenon has been identified.

New Zealand’s experience of ENSO synchronished more closely with that experienced in India and China. Chapter 6 details how the most severe weather of this ENSO event came in 1877 and 1878. Numerous, unpredictable bursts of severe wind, rain, snow, flood prompted anxiety about the weather. The general pattern of El Niño drought along the east coast of both islands was reversed with the severe rains of June 1878 in Dunedin. The most striking social consequence of such violent weather was the destruction of the town of Port Molyneux (Otago) in 1878 through flooding. Meanwhile, Fiji experienced a marked reduction in rainfall and Tahiti suffered a rare drought, severe storms and an intense cyclone during the 1876-1878 El Niño.

Chapter 7 outlines the series of El Niños that beset Australia between 1895 and 1903, along with their scientific, political and cultural consequences. Exacerbated by economic depression, the accompanying series of droughts were the harshest Australia was to experience until almost a century later. Rainfall deficiencies were almost universal. Furnace-like winds scorched much of eastern Australia in summer; icy gales bit in winter. Stock losses were measured in the tens of millions, crops shrivelled, even Cobb and Co. horse-drawn mail and passenger services were withdrawn due to shortages of feed and water. Drought afflicted all regions studied, though the Mary/Burnett did not feel the impact until 1900 and the drought began to break in Burra much earlier than in NSW and Queensland. Within the Northern Victoria and Riverina, as well as the Hunter regions, there was marked variability in rainfall, or its lack, and in the timing of the most extreme deficiencies. Such hardship prompted a search for explanations and an ultimately unfulfilled urge to successfully predict future droughts that gave rise to theories from authorities such as H.C. Russell about 19-year weather cycles, and others who related drought to sunspot activity. Politically, the ravages of these El Niños compelled many to believe that only a Federated polity of the then-separate colonies could help protect against future droughts. Underlying the then emerging nationalist iconography was the sense that the struggle with the land could, ultimately, be won.

Across New Zealand over the same period, people suffered ‘travails of wet and dry and of winds and flood’ (310). The winter of 1895 was long and icy. At times, snow covered large parts of both islands. The incredible variability of rainfall in 1897 simply defied easy summary. The predominant preoccupation was how to conserve water and mitigate floods. The years 1897 and 1898 brought the only sustained drought in New Zealand in this work’s study periods, although by late 1898 the worst was over. The 1901/1902 El Niño brought much smaller and less extreme events. Chapter 8 encapsulates the complicated, variable effects of El Niño across New Zealand. It also highlights that in Fiji the most severe rainfall deficiencies came at the beginning and end of this period. Severe storms and a number of cyclones also brought much hardship between 1895 and 1903. In Tahiti this El Niño was marked by erratic rainfall and one of the strongest cyclones ever to strike the region.

The work’s narrative is complemented by an assortment of illustrations. Some remarkable photos portray the drama, trauma and rare delights of the extreme weather depicted in this volume. The 16 appendices and extensive end notes strengthen this work. Numbers tell stories and the graphs and tables of, mostly, recorded rainfall, are a real boon.

Don Garden concludes with a powerful message. With climate change, he notes, ‘El Niño events are becoming more frequent and severe’ (341). Such a complex phenomenon needs to be understood in all its complexity. Droughts, Floods and Cyclones matters because it makes a significant contribution to this end. In addition, it places major ‘natural’ events in a much broader social, ecological and climatological context and successfully demonstrates throughout how extreme weather events have limited development in various parts of Australasia and Oceania. A most engaging read, Droughts, Floods and Cyclones showcases the value of well documented narrative history in understanding natural phenomena.


[1]PhD Candidate. Centre for Environmental History, History, Research School of Social Sciences, and North Australia Research Unit, Australian National University.

[2]For example, Rob Allan, Janette Lindesay and David Parker, El Nino Southern Oscillation and Climatic Variability, (Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing, 1996), p22.