In the Book of Mormon, desperately hoping to bring an end to the wickedness and destruction around him, the prophet Nephi, son of Helaman, petitions God to cause a famine (see Helaman 11). “O Lord,” he cries, “do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land, to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn unto thee” (Helaman 11:4).
The Lord grants Nephi’s request; a famine occurs. How? Is it caused by the war, or by locusts, or by plant diseases? No. The text clearly indicates that crops fail and famine results because of a severe drought (see Helaman 11:6, 13, 17).
The drought described in Helaman 11 is probably the only dated, climate-related event in the Book of Mormon that was capable of leaving a “signature” detectable more than 2,000 years later. For one thing, although it was brief, it affected an extensive area. We know from Helaman 11:6 that it affected more than just the Nephite lands, and that it was so severe that “thousands” died.
But how might such an event be confirmed at so great a distance in time?
Prolonged drought, perhaps over periods lasting decades, has been one of the explanations proposed for the collapse of the Maya and other Mesoamerican civilizations. This has led researchers interested in the history and archaeology of the area to examine its record of precipitation. Other scholars and scientists, particularly meteorologists and climatologists, have undertaken studies of historical weather patterns in the region with the goal of understanding the effects of El Niño and to obtain a clearer picture of climate change over time.
The most obvious tools for such research are tree rings. But the information currently available from dendrochronology, the study of tree rings, doesn’t extend back far enough to detect Nephi’s drought, which seems to have begun about 25-20 B.C. and to have lasted between three and 3.5 years. The oldest dated tree ring in Mesoamerica goes back only to A.D. 771, which is nearly four centuries too late for the Book of Mormon.
Another favored tool is the analysis of sediment cores from lake beds. But they aren’t of high enough resolution to be of use in this case.
In recent years, however, stalagmites collected from caves have begun to be used to discern an area’s precipitation history, and such analysis is now becoming precise enough to identify a drought, such as that in Helaman 11, that lasted fewer than four years.
So, what does the presently available evidence from Mesoamerican speleothems or cave deposits indicate? A recently published article “Let There Be a Famine in the Land,” byJim Hawker, in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship (of which I am the president of the board of trustees) summarizes the relevant information:
First, a drought did actually occur slightly more than 2,000 years ago in Mesoamerica. (By contrast, incidentally, the only comparable evidence available thus far from further up in what is now the territory of the United States of America suggests that, there, the period of Helaman’s drought was unusually wet.)
Second, based on data gathered from three Mesoamerican stalagmites, this drought happened within a few years of the time when the Book of Mormon says it happened, and it lasted as little as 3.2 years.
If this argument holds up, it represents a small and rather unexpected — but quite remarkable — bull's-eye for Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
But did the drought and the resultant famine have the effect for which Nephi hoped? Temporarily, yes:
“And it came to pass that in the seventy and sixth year the Lord did turn away his anger from the people, and caused that rain should fall upon the earth, insomuch that it did bring forth her fruit in the season of her fruit. And it came to pass that it did bring forth her grain in the season of her grain.10 comments on this story
“And behold, the people did rejoice and glorify God, and the whole face of the land was filled with rejoicing; and they did no more seek to destroy Nephi, but they did esteem him as a great prophet, and a man of God, having great power and authority given unto him from God.” (Helaman 11:17-18)
For the scientific details behind these conclusions, see Hawker's “Let There Be a Famine in the Land” in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, Vol. 30 (2018), pages 305-330 and online at mormoninterpreter.com/let-there-be-a-famine-in-the-land/#more-13816.