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Cold weather may correlate to a nation's prosperity

By Norm Heikens
Indianapolis Star
October 22, 2001 

Be thankful for cold weather.
Not only does it stop your lawn from growing, but a new study suggests it also creates a climate for wealth.

Purdue University agricultural economist William Masters and Tufts University economist Margaret McMillan say frost and its ability to improve agricultural production and control disease separates rich nations from poor ones.
"It jumps right out at you," Masters said. "Over hundreds of years, this is the determining factor. Over the short run, 10 years, it is insignificant."
The study, published last month in the Journal of Economic Growth, claims to be the first to compare ground temperature and national personal income.
Wealth and poverty diverge where temperatures at the ground surface dip to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less for at least five days a month over three months.
Temperate countries such as the United States and Great Britain in the northern hemisphere and Australia and Chile in the southern have hard frosts and are wealthy; the Philippines and Egypt don't freeze and are poor.
Inflation-adjusted income grew 1 percent to 2 percent faster in nations with frost during the period covered by the study, 1960-1990.
That might not sound like much, but it could help explain why average personal income in the United States is $30,000 and only $300 in the tropical African nation of Mali, Masters said.
Cold weather kills mosquitoes that carry malaria and other diseases. It also helps improve soils. Cycles of warm and cold weather slow soil microbes from breaking down organic matter into minerals, which are lost to the air or leached into the subsoil beneath the surface.
Organic matter holds moisture and releases nutrients to plants and, ultimately, creates better crops.
Writers and scientists over the centuries have speculated that nations in colder climates are more prosperous for reasons that can't be changed, including temperature, soils and human genetics.
But Masters noted the wealthy city-state countries of Hong Kong and Singapore have circumvented tropical climates by opening themselves to trade.
Conversely, temperate-but-poor North Korea has isolated itself from the world.
China, which has both temperate and tropical climates, was left behind by the industrial revolution because it closed its borders to trade, Masters said.
Climate isn't the prevailing explanation of wealth disparity.
Economists and political scientists point out that wealthy countries tend to have market economies and democratically controlled governments.
Carol Graham, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, said good government, free trade and investments in education and health probably are more important than agriculture for creating wealth.
"It's very, very difficult for external forces to impose" free trade and democratic institutions, Graham said.
Cornell University soil scientist John Duxbury said temperate nations have another advantage.
Their soils, having been deposited by glaciers, are younger and more fertile. Tropical soils are old and "weathered," he said.
Masters said the studies justify a renewed attack on poverty through agricultural research.
As the Green Revolution of the '60s created new strains of wheat that rescued India and Pakistan from starvation, biotechnology could adapt a new round of crops for tropical climates, Masters said.

Contact Norm Heikens at 1-317-444-6532 or via e-mail at norm.heikens@indystar.com