Population and Environment

, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 3–26 | Cite as

Household access to capital and its effects on drought adaptation and migration: a case study of rural Alberta in the 1930s

Original Paper


This article reports findings from an empirical study of the impacts of drought on rural households in southeastern Alberta, Canada during the 1930s. In that decade, extreme summer heat conditions and low precipitation levels led to repeated crop failures. These extreme climatic conditions coincided with economic recession, falling commodity prices, and rising unemployment to create widespread hardship and suffering across the rural population. Thousands of households adapted by leaving the drought-stricken region and migrating to more northerly regions unaffected by drought, often suffering still further hardship as they reestablished themselves in a new environment. Through secondary research of historical documents and interviews with surviving migrants and non-migrants, this study identifies how economic, human, and social capital influenced the adaptive capacity, adaptation decisions, and migration behavior of rural households and describes how institutional responses affected household adaptation. Differential access to capital in its various forms was a key factor that distinguished households that adapted via migration from those that did not. The findings from this study of historical environment-related population change provide insights that enhance our broader understanding of potential future migration responses to the impacts of anthropogenic climate change and important considerations for policy-makers and planners seeking to build adaptive capacity in rural populations.


Drought Migration Great Depression Canadian Prairies Climate adaptation 



This research was financially supported by a standard research grant and graduate scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The authors would like to acknowledge and thank the residents of the study areas in Alberta who participated in this project. Simon Evans is particularly thanked for his advice in the early stages of field research. This article benefitted from suggestions made by anonymous reviewers and the editor.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of OttawaOttawaCanada

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