• Climate change;
  • land carrying capacity;
  • Malthusian checks;
  • Northern Hemisphere;
  • population collapses;
  • pre-industrial era


Aim  It has long been assumed that deteriorating climate (cooling and warming above the norm) could shrink the carrying capacity of agrarian lands, depriving the human population of sufficient food. Population collapses (i.e. negative population growth) follow. However, this human–ecological relationship has rarely been verified scientifically, and evidence of warming-caused disaster has never been found. This research sought to explore quantitatively the temporal pattern, spatial pattern and triggers of population collapses in relation to climate change at the global scale over 1100 years.

Location  Various countries/regions in the Northern Hemisphere (NH) during the pre-industrial era.

Methods  We performed time-series analysis to examine the association between temperature change and country-wide/region-wide population collapses in different climatic zones. All of the known population collapse incidents in the NH in the period ce 800–1900 were included in our data analysis.

Results  Nearly 90% of population collapses in various NH countries/regions occurred during periods of climate deterioration characterized by shrinking carrying capacity of the land. In addition, we found that cooling dampened the human ecosystem and brought about 80% of the collapses in warmer humid, cooler humid and dry zones, while warming adversely affected the ecosystems in dry and tropical humid zones. All of the population collapses and growth declines in periods of warm climate occurred in dry and tropical humid zones. Malthusian checks (famines, wars and epidemics) were the dominant triggers of population collapses, which peaked dramatically when climate deteriorated.

Main conclusions  Global demographic catastrophes and most population collapse incidents occurred in periods with great climate change, owing to overpopulation caused by diminished carrying capacity of the land and the resultant outbreak of Malthusian checks. Impacts of cooling or warming on land carrying capacity varied geographically, as a result of the diversified ecosystems in different parts of the Earth. The observed climate–population synchrony challenges Malthusian theory and demonstrates that it is not population growth alone but climate-induced subsistence shortage and population growth working synergistically, that cause large-scale human population collapses on the long-term scale.