Since the 18th century, over 7 million Germans have moved to North America, gifting countries like the United States with their language and culture.
We can still see their influence in our love of Oktoberfest, the accordions found in Tejano music, and the many people who bear German names. For instance, the Pfizer pharmaceutical company that makes Advil was founded by a German immigrant, and the grandson of another is now the president of the United States.
The conventional story behind why so many Germans came to North America is that back in the 1800s, Germany — and all of Europe, really — was going through a pretty tumultuous time. Revolutions, wars, the birth of empires: Back then, Europe was a complicated place to try and make a living.
But a new study suggests that’s not the whole picture. Because the weather itself may have also been conspiring against them.
“Overall, we found that climate indirectly explains up to 20% to 30% of migration from Southwest Germany to North America in the 19th century,” said Rüdiger Glaser, a professor at the University of Freiburg in Germany.
Using a complicated analysis of 1800s population numbers, weather data, and food prices, Glaser and his colleagues were able to illuminate how a changing climate played a hand in bringing immigrants from southwestern Germany to America.
Those food prices were really the heart of the problem. At the time, German farmers depended on stable, reliable weather to grow their crops. But as droughts, cold snaps, and floods wracked the region, stable weather could be in short supply.
“The chain of effects is clearly visible: Poor climate conditions lead to low crop yields, rising cereal prices and finally emigration,” said Glaser.
Glaser and his team were even able to pinpoint specific events and changes. For instance, they saw a big wave of emigration right after the bitterly cold and rainy Year Without a Summer in 1816. A series of droughts caused another wave around the mid-1840s.
The changing weather patterns don’t explain everything about migration — there were still wars, still revolutions, after all — but they did appear to play a role.
Today, we’re seeing our climate and weather patterns change again.
While the events that caused immigration back in the 1800s were not necessarily the same type of climate change we’re seeing today (the Year Without a Summer was due to a volcano, after all, not carbon emissions), rising sea levels and more extreme weather events are still forcing people to move. In fact, the U.N. estimated that in 2008, climate change displaced 20 million people worldwide.
Glaser’s team hopes that by looking to the past, we can better understand the connection between human migration and our climate.
So if your last name happens to be Schmidt or Weber or Fischer, it might be worth double-checking when your grandparents or great-grandparents arrived in the United States. You might be in for a surprise.
Glaser and his colleagues’ paper appeared in the scientific journal Climate of the Past.