In the 19th century, more than five million Germans migrated to North America.
One such German was Friedrich Trump, the grandfather of the current US President, who arrived in New York in 1885 as an unskilled 16-year-old who couldn’t speak English.
Germans like Friedrich Trump came to the US in part because they were looking for “peace and freedom”, said Professor Rüdiger Glaser, a physical geographer at the University of Freiburg, Germany.
But according to a new study led by Prof Glaser, changes in Europe’s climate were also responsible for up to 30 per cent of emigration from south-west Germany to North America during this period.
Climatic instability was triggered by the tail end of a period known as the Little Ice Age, and exacerbated by the massive eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia.
The volcanic eruption expelled so much sulphur into the atmosphere that the sun was obscured for more than two years.
During this time, droughts, floods and cold temperatures culminating in the so-called Year Without a Summer had dire consequences for many Europeans.
“There is a chain of events which goes climate extremes, drop in harvest yields, rising prices and then the people are migrating,” said Prof Glaser, lead author of the Climate of the Past study.
Focusing on the Baden-Württemberg region of south-west Germany, Professor Glaser and his collaborators studied migration statistics and population data, and compared them with weather data, harvest figures and cereal prices.
“Trump, he comes from south-west Germany – the Palatinate, the neighbouring region to Baden-Württemberg,” said Professor Glaser.
They concluded that besides social and political changes such as the Napoleonic wars, climate made a significant contribution to German emigration.
According to Prof Glaser, it’s important that world leaders like Mr Trump are aware of past waves of migration in the context of climate change.
“It’s really touching today’s main discussions on the global scale,” said Prof Glaser.
Immigration due to climate change is a pertinent issue, with Fiji recently declaring that more than 40 villages are being relocated to higher ground to escape rising sea levels.
Europeans and North Americans, too, should bear in mind their own history of climate-induced immigration, said Prof Glaser.
“The out-migration movement to North America is still the most significant migration movement ever,” he added.
“We have been the main source for migration, and now we are one of the target regions. We have to see things within this dynamic.”
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