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Documentary evidence of climate variability during cold seasons in Lesotho, southern Africa, 1833–1900

Abstract

This study presents the first 19th century cold season climate chronology for the Kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa. The chronology is constructed using a variety of documentary sources including letters, diaries, reports, monographs and newspaper articles obtained from southern African and British archives. Information relating to cold season weather phenomena during the austral autumn, winter and early spring months were recorded verbatim. Each of the cold seasons from 1833 to 1900 was then classified as “very severe”, “severe” or “normal/mild”, with a confidence rating ranging from low (1) to high (3) awarded against each annual classification. The accuracy of the document-derived chronology was verified against temperature data for Maseru for the period 1893–1900. Excellent correspondence of the document-derived chronology with the Maseru instrumental data and also with other global proxy temperature records for the 19th century is achieved. The results indicate 12 (18% of the total) very severe, 16 (23%) severe and 40 (59%) normal/mild cold seasons between 1833 and 1900. The overall trend is for more severe and snow-rich cold seasons during the early part of the study period (1833–1854) compared with the latter half of the 19th century (with the exception of the 1880s). A reduction in the duration of the frost season by over 20 days during the 19th century is also tentatively identified. Several severe to very severe cold seasons in Lesotho follow after major tropical and SH volcanic eruptions; such years are usually characterized by early frosts, and frequent and heavy snowfalls. The blocking of solar radiation and the enhanced northward displacement of polar fronts that are directly or indirectly associated with volcanic events, may account for many of the most severe Lesotho winters during the 19th century.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by British Academy Small Grant SG-40838. The Council for World Mission, United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the Département Français pour l’Action Apostolique are thanked for their permission to use quotations. Extracts from Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society materials are copyright of the Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes in Great Britain, and are used with permission. Prof. David Ambrose gave considerable help in locating documentary sources, and Dr Stephanie Mills and Ms Puleng Morake provided invaluable assistance during the analysis of French and Sesotho-language materials. Ricardo Garcia-Herrera is thanked for providing us with access to the chronological list and description of historical El Niño events in northern Peru. Wendy Phillips kindly assisted in preparing several of the Figures. Thanks to the staff at the Special Collections Reading Room (SOAS, University of London), Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House (University of Oxford), Lesotho National Archive (Maseru) and the Morija Museum and Archives for their help. Finally, we would like to express our appreciation to the anonymous referees who provided valuable comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of the paper.

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Correspondence to Stefan W. Grab.

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Grab, S.W., Nash, D.J. Documentary evidence of climate variability during cold seasons in Lesotho, southern Africa, 1833–1900. Clim Dyn 34, 473–499 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-009-0598-4

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Keywords

  • Cold season chronology
  • 19th century
  • Lesotho
  • Volcanic forcing