The 200-year Cycle: An Early Climate-based Reaction to the Crisis in the Sahel and its Uptake in 1973


  • Robert Naylor Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester
  • Eleanor Shaw Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester


Climatic Change, Crisis Climatology, Sahel Drought, Hubert Lamb, Derek Winstanley


The famine in the Western Sahel which made international headlines in the early 1970s was one of the first major post-colonial disasters, and set the tone for Western engagement in the region throughout the following decades. It was also one of the earliest events that was decisively linked with narratives of global climatic change, helping to propel ideas about climatic change into the political spotlight. An interdisciplinary symposium held in July 1973, and its subsequent report, saw British climatologist Hubert Lamb put forward a suggestion attributing the Sahelian crisis to a 200-year cyclical climatic process. This controversial 200-year figure, despite being presented in a single-page paper relying on extremely limited data, spread through both academic and media networks. This and similar climatic prognoses were advanced by a minority within the physical science community. Climate attribution narratives, along with linked environmentally determinist explanations such as local environmental degradation and population explosions, were prioritised in both general academic and popular circles, despite often being rejected by the meteorological community. Alternative explanations, which emphasised the complexity of causational narratives and recognition of the impact of colonial and post-colonial interventions in the region, did not receive as much attention. In the discursive environment of the crises of the 1970s, explanations for the famine such as those advanced through climate attribution narratives found resonance, reinforcing continued colonial portrayals of the Sahel as inherently dangerous and incapable of supporting its own population.