Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thursday Thirteen #19: The Little Ice Age

I'm sure we're all at least vaguely familiar with the Ice Age (the geological era, not the animated movie)--that time 10,000 years ago when the wooly mammoth was king and most of the earth was encased in ice--but did you know there was a Little Ice Age in our not so distant past? Sunday night I found myself enthralled by a program on The History Channel about this period that has greatly influenced our modern world. Here is some of what I learned, with my advance apologies for the length.

1. The Little Ice Age was preceded by the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) or Medieval Climate Optimum, which saw unusually warm temperatures in the North Atlantic region, lasting from about 800-1300 AD. During that time vineyards flourished in the British Isles. There have been no vineyards there since the early 1300s.

2. Pack ice started to advance southwards in the North Atlantic in the early13th century, as did glaciers in Greenland and Switzerland. Three years of torrential rains began in 1315, ushering in an era of unpredictable weather across Northern Europe into the 19th century. Expanding glaciers are mentioned in journals and other writings of this period almost worldwide.

3. During the MWP, Vikings found their way from Norway to Greenland, which at that time was rich in fertile farmland. As the Little Ice Age began, glaciers covered once-fertile fields in thick ice and snow, forcing people who once relied on the land (crops and livestock) for 80% of their livelihood and the sea for 20%, to reverse that trend to 20% and 80%. The Viking population completely disappeared from Greenland by the early 1400s.

4. 1315-1317 is known as The Great Famine, years when crop yields were significantly lower than they had been in centuries. Wheat yields that had previously been 7:1 were now 2:1 (seeds harvested for food versus seeds for replanting). It was a period of mass deaths, disease and even cannibalism, and is believed to be the source of such stories as “Hansel and Gretel”--parents unable to feed all of their children would literally leave younger and/or weaker ones in the woods to die.

5. In the 17th century, the expansion of glaciers in the Swiss Alps was so great they swallowed entire farms and completely destroyed villages, leading to widespread famine and civil unrest. The River Thames and the canals and rivers of the Netherlands often froze over during the winter, and people skated and even held frost fairs on the ice. The first Thames freeze was in 1607; the last was in 1814.

6. North Americans consume more beer and hard spirits than wine in part due to the Little Ice Age. Severe climate changes meant huge changes in growing seasons and what type of crops would grow. Great Britain and Northern Europe was once almost tropical with long growing cycles, and a wide variety of crops. The LIA quickly shortened growing seasons to as little as one to three months. Grapes and vineyards were replaced by hardy grains, which were used not only as cereals and breads, but to make beer and whiskey. When these peoples eventually migrated across the Atlantic, they took that culture with them.

7. In the winter of 1780, New York Harbor froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island, and sea ice surrounding Iceland extended for miles in every direction, closing that island's harbors to shipping. The winter of 1794-95 was especially brutal. The French army under Pichegru could march on the frozen rivers of the Netherlands, while the Dutch fleet was stuck in the ice in Den Helder Harbor.

8. Winters of excess rains and snow were reported across the northern hemisphere: In Ethiopia and Mauritania, permanent snow was reported on mountain peaks at levels where it does not occur today. The trans-Saharan city of Timbuktu was flooded at least 13 times by the Niger River; there are no records of similar flooding before or since. Oranges grew for centuries in the Jiangxi Province in China, where they were once a key crop. European settlers in North America reported exceptionally severe winters, with ice persisting on Lake Superior until June in 1607-1608 (it rarely freezes over completely, and does not last long when it does.)

9. The denser wood caused by prolonged cold periods is believed to be the reason why the tone of a violin made by Antonio Stradivari is more superb than other instruments.

10. 1816 was “The Year Without a Summer,” or “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” Temperatures were so severe that parts of Canada and the New England states experienced heavy snowstorms in June, with nearly a foot of snow in Quebec City, and river ice was seen as far south as Pennsylvania into July and August. Across the Atlantic, heavy rains pelted Northern Europe. Dramatic temperature swings could see a change from 90F to near freezing within hours.

11. The Year Without a Summer is believed to have been caused by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, located in present-day Indonesia. Temperatures generally fall after massive eruptions due to the amount of dust particles in the air, which block sunlight from entering the atmosphere. The eruption of Tambora was infinitely greater than that of Mount St. Helen’s. It was felt over 12,000 miles away and killed about 71,000 people, with 11,000–12,000 killed directly by the eruption. 1816 was the second coldest year in the northern hemisphere since AD 1400; 1601, following the 1600 eruption of Huaynaputina in Peru, was the coldest. Crops across North America, Europe and Asia were killed by the extreme cold temperatures and excessive rains and frost, resulting in wide spread famine and riots.

12. July 1816 resulted in the literary masterpiece “Frankenstein.” A group of writers on vacation in Switzerland found the temperatures so cold and wet that they were forced to stay indoors and entertain themselves. Percy Bysshe Shelley proposed a writing contest for scariest story, during which Mary Shelley began to pen her now famous tale and John William Polidori to write “The Vampyre.”

13. The Little Ice Age ended abruptly about 1850. Despite nearly 300 years, we are still “coming out of” the LIA. There has been a dramatic warming trend since the mid-1800s, and many climatologists believe that we are merely repeating a natural cycle we’ve seen before. However, since the Industrial Age, there has been a significantly greater concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the earth’s atmosphere, markedly accelerating the global warming process. Studies indicate that these changes can be abrupt--occurring in as short a time as a few decades. Will vineyards soon flourish again in Great Britain? Will Greenland once more be rich with fertile farmland instead of rife with snow and ice? How will modern man adapt to such sudden changes in climate? If present day events are any indication, we’re in for a bumpy ride!

(BTW, I made the header myself, with a pic I took two winters ago.)

Links to other Thursday Thirteens!
1. Debbie 2. Laura 3. Babe 4. Jennifer Shirk 5. Tempest
6. Adelle 7. Paige 8. Amelia 9. Jennifer McK
10. Gina Ardito 11. Erin Gordon 12. Shelley Munro
13. Lia 14. Robin 15. JAC 16. Rae 17. Jenna
18. Christine 19. Savannah

(leave your link in comments, I’ll add you here!)

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Debbie Mumford said...

COOL post! Thanks for the information. My brother is a cowboy poet and has done quite a bit of research into the effects of the 1816 blizzard in Montana ... fascinating and scary stuff. Brrrr.

Shelley Munro said...

Isn't it interesting how the weather patterns change all the time. My husband doesn't believe in global warming. He says the changing weather patterns have always been with us. Interesting about beer and spirit drinking habits in the US. Great post!

Gina Ardito said...

Gorgeous pic and great post! I remember learning that Long Island is the ideal farmland because it's the only place on the East Coast with no rocks in the soil. The rocks were all pushed to the North Shore of Long Island Sound by glaciers.

Cool, huh?

Jennifer Shirk said...

Whoa. A year without a summer? Perish the thought!

Very interesting!

Babe King said...


Adelle said...

Very interesting and beautiful pic! I never really paid much attention to things like this until maybe the past couple years. Sure makes you think.
Happy T13~

Paige Tyler said...

Very cool facts!


My TT is at

Tempest Knight said...

Awesome info, chica! Happy T13!

Amelia June said...

That was a really interesting post, lots of great story ideas floating around in there.

I've always loved the "I'm trapped, I'll write a book" Frankenstein story!

Jana said...

Lord love a duck, but I don't think I could survive an ice age...little or otherwise. Granted, I hate summer but I hate ice and extreme cold, too. *shudders*

Interesting stuff, tho.

Heather said...

Debbie~ How cool that your brother has researched some aspect of this. I cna only imagine the effects of a summerless year in MT!

Shelley~ Sounds like this is a program your DH would have enjoyed. I agree that changing weather patterns are "normal" but the big question is, to what extent has man influenced them? There's no doubt we have.

Gina~ Very cool indeed. Wis was also shaped by the glaciers. No mountains here, but lots of hills, bluffs and a ton of lakes.

Amelia~ I think the weather has influenced art and literature much more than we realize. I mean, even Nora got her start by writing during a blizzard. Hmm...maybe I need to move where there are more storms. lol

Robin L. Rotham said...

VERY interesting! And awesome header, too.

My farmer husband would NOT be very excited for summer to pass us by. That would suck.