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Merciless Ancient Flood Carried 300,000 Lives Away

Merciless Ancient Flood Carried 300,000 Lives Away

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A new paper provides evidence that a historic Yellow River flood in China killed an estimated 300,000 people, suggesting the city of Kaifeng was to killer floods, what Pompeii was to mega-volcanoes.

The Chinese city of Kaifeng was a former imperial capital and a new study published in the journal  Scientific Reports provides geological and archaeological evidence supporting old literary accounts found in historical documents, that a catastrophic flood in 1642 AD destroyed the inner city and “entombed its inhabitants” within several meters of silt and clay.

Dr. Michael Storozum is a Doctor of Philosophy at Shanghai’s Fudan University Institute of Archaeological Science and, as lead author of the new research paper, he said this flood was particularly “catastrophic” because the city’s defensive walls had partially collapsed during a military siege which caused the floodwaters to become trapped inside.

China Vs Nature’s Wrath: The Flood of 1642 AD

Kaifeng is located on the southern bank of China’s Yellow River’s in the modern central Henan province and in antiquity it was one of the world’s largest cities serving as an imperial capital for several Chinese dynasties . The Yellow River is known to have flooded more than a thousand times in the past 2,000 years causing some of the deadliest flood disasters in recorded history, having claimed an estimated million lives. And over the past 3,000 years, while the Yellow River has flooded Kaifeng city around 40 times, according to the new paper, the 1642 AD event was “perhaps the most devastating of them all”.

Kaifeng and the Yellow River. (a) Topography of the North China Plain. (b) Area around Kaifeng, showing the elevation of the Yellow River compared to Kaifeng. (c) City walls of Kaifeng (solid line - Song dynasty wall, dashed line - Ming/Qing dynasty) (d) The super elevated channel of the Yellow River hanging above Kaifeng, with the tallest building in medieval Kaifeng, the Iron Pagoda, for scale. (Storozum / Scientific Reports)

Kaifeng and the Yellow River. (a) Topography of the North China Plain. (b) Area around Kaifeng, showing the elevation of the Yellow River compared to Kaifeng. (c) City walls of Kaifeng (solid line - Song dynasty wall, dashed line - Ming/Qing dynasty) (d) The super elevated channel of the Yellow River hanging above Kaifeng, with the tallest building in medieval Kaifeng, the Iron Pagoda, for scale. (Storozum / Scientific Reports )

In a Newsweek article about the new study, Xin Xu and Rivka Gonen, authors of the book  The Jews of Kaifeng, China: History, Culture, and Religion , said that for six months Kaifeng had been resisting a rebel siege on its outer defensive walls and the governor fatefully ordered that the waters of the Yellow River be “unleashed in hopes of destroying the rebel army”. The walls were subsequently broken apart but rather than washing away the rebels the raging dirty waters penetrated the low-lying city taking the number of inhabitants from 378,000, to only “a few score thousand” (60,000) survivors.

The Flood Was Like A Washing Machine Loaded With Razor Blades

Storozum and colleagues explain in their paper that the constant influx of floodwater entering the city created a “deadly mix of mud and urban debris” that they say significantly amplified the destructive power of the flooding Yellow River, causing it to cut through and tear apart everything caught up in its wrath. What this 17th century flood event at Kaifeng tells the scientists is that “urban resilience is not static” but varies in accordance with the magnitude and type of natural hazard, the built landscape, as well as the city's social institutions, said the authors.

Victims of the 1642 AD flood were discovered along with a deadly mix of mud and urban debris. (Storozum / Scientific Reports)

Victims of the 1642 AD flood were discovered along with a deadly mix of mud and urban debris. (Storozum / Scientific Reports )

It’s not only historic floods that the researcher’s new investigations shine light on, for similar events are predicted to occur in our modern world in which “ climate change is expected to cause an increase in extreme weather around the globe,” wrote the scientists. And they also pointed out that as global temperatures continue to rise, which increases the frequency of extremities of floods, studying this one historic event provided an important reminder that unexpected events have happened in the past “and will likely happen again”.

The Facts As They Stand, Are Soaked To The Bone

According to a recent report on the science platform First Street , flooding is a natural process that greatly benefits the environment by, “abating erosion, protecting habitat, cultivating biological productivity” which leads to groundwater recharge. However, high frequency and excessive flooding conversely damage ecosystems, natural habitats, and entire communities, as was experienced over the last month in the UK and other places around the globe. According to a BBC report published today, Copernicus, the EU's climate change service, last winter was “the warmest winter on record for Europe, by a long margin,” being 3.4C above the 1981-2010 average and 1.4C higher than the previous warmest winter of 2015-16.

The site showing deposits from floods. (Storozum / Scientific Reports)

The site showing deposits from floods. (Storozum / Scientific Reports )

In North America, according to First Street , between 2000 and 2017 tidal flooding increased “an average of 233% nationally” and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that in 2019, “200 million people in 25 North American states were at risk from flooding”. Trying to explain this sharp increase in heavy downpours and flooding across most of the United States over the last 20 years, it is believed to be largely caused due to changes in “sea levels, surface temperature, and sea surface temperature,” and these fluctuating environmental factors bring about inconsistent, unpredictable, and increasing flood patterns.

Two victims of the flood found prone on a wooden bed. (Storozum / Scientific Reports)

Two victims of the flood found prone on a wooden bed. (Storozum / Scientific Reports )

And so far as costs are concerned, according to NOAA, flood damage in America alone has cost the American tax payers, “$1 trillion in inflation adjusted dollars since 1980” representing over 63% of the costs of all disasters totaling a billion dollars or more.

Top image: The Yellow River Breaches its Course by Ma Yuan  Source: Beijing Palace Museum / Public Domain

By Ashley Cowie

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