The French Revolution (1789–1799)

What happened?

  • Beginning as early as the 1760s, France began to experience lower crop yields, particularly of grain, causing economic strife and famine. 
    • Lower grain yields caused prices to skyrocket and left less surplus to export for revenue. 
    • The lower class, who produced most of the agricultural yield in the first place, relied on grain as a main food source. The rising prices and increased scarcity led to a famine.
  • The combined effects of the economic downturn and famine, as well as other reasons, led to the uprising of the lower class that sparked the French Revolution. For example, crop yields were especially low in 1788, contributing to the bread riots in 1789, a key event in starting the revolution.

An illustration of people trying to purchase the limited amounts of food during the bread riots that lead to the French Revolution in 18th century France; Universal Images Group, Christophel Fine Arts (from McIlvenna, 2019).

How is this related to climate?

  • Three major climatic events may have contributed to poor grain harvests in France in the second half of the 18th century. 
    • The Little Ice Age, a period of widespread cooling and an average drop in global temperatures from around 1300 to 1850, created conditions that were unfavorable to crop harvests. The Little Ice Age was also associated with increased climate variability. The year of 1788 had a very cold winter and a very hot summer, devastating crops that year and leading to a particularly low yield.
    • The Laki volcano in Iceland erupted from June 1783 to February 1784. The eruption sent ash into the atmosphere, blocking out sunlight and decreasing temperatures, resulting in lower crop yields. 
    • One of the most severe El Niño events in history occurred from 1788 to 1794. Winters were longer than normal, springs were wetter than normal and summers were drier and hotter than normal, all conditions that contributed to poor crop yields.
      • El Niño, and its opposite phase, La Niña, are part of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which is a complex, large-scale weather pattern driven by natural temperature variations in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño phases are driven by warmer ocean temperatures and La Niña by colder ocean temperatures. However, because of the complexity of ocean-atmosphere climate interactions, El Niño phases do not necessarily correlate to overall warmer climates and La Niña to overall colder climates. 

References and additional resources