The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850

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Unfortunately, the book could use an equally fastidious editor. Very interesting, if poorly organized. I still recommend it, though! Aug 30, Tim Martin rated it really liked it Shelves: science , reviewed , history. Despite the name, the Little Ice Age a term coined by glacial geologist Francois Matthes in , a term he used in a very informal way and without capitalized letters was not a time of unrelenting cold. Rather, it was an era of dramatic climatic shifts, cycles of intensely cold winters and easterly winds alternating with periods of heavy spring and early summer rains, mild winters, and frequent and often devastating Atlantic storms as well as periods of droughts, light northeasterly winds, and intense summer heat.

The Little Ice Age was "an endless zigzag of climatic shifts," few lasting more than 25 years or so.

ISBN 13: 9780465022724

Nevertheless the climate of the time proved difficult and overall was uniformly cooler, often considerably so, than the time before and afterwards. The Little Ice Age was an era when there used to be winter fairs on the frozen River Thames during the time of King Charles II, one that produced the great gales that devastated the Spanish Armada in , was when George Washington's Continental Army endured a brutal winter in Valley Forge in , when pack ice surrounded Iceland for much of the year, when Alpine glaciers destroyed villages and advanced kilometers from their present positions, when hundreds of poor died of hypothermia regularly every winter in London late into the 19th century.

It was also a time of massive rainy periods, such as the immense rains of and that helped stop the armies of French King Louis X from crushing the rebellious Flemings and produced an immense famine as crops couldn't survive the near unending rain. Piecing together the climatic history of the Little Ice Age has been a challenge, one that required a multidisciplinary approach. Fagan recounted how reliable instrument records only go back a few centuries and then primarily only for Europe and North America.

Researchers have instead relied on information obtained from tree rings, ice cores, lake and marine bottom sediment cores, wine harvest records, analysis of the weather portrayed in art of the period, and anecdotal written records of country clergymen and gentleman scientists to piece together what the weather was like during the time period. Although the causes of the Little Ice Age are not completely understood, much of it had to do with the actions of the North Atlantic Oscillation NAO , a "seesaw" of atmospheric pressure between a persistent high over the Azores and an equally prevalent low over Iceland.

Using charts and maps, Fagan showed how the NAO governs the position and strength of the North Atlantic storm track and thus Europe's rainfall. The NAO index shows the constant shifts in the oscillation between these two areas, with a high NAO index indicating low pressure around Iceland and high pressure in the Azores, a condition producing westerly winds, powerful storms, more summer rains, mild winters, and dry conditions in southern Europe. A low NAO index signaled high pressure around Iceland, low pressure in the Azores, weaker westerlies, much colder winters, with cold air flowing from the north and east.

The exact reasons for the shifts in the NAO result from a complex interaction between sea-surface temperatures, the Gulf Stream, distribution of sea ice, and solar energy output.

Additionally, several massive volcanic eruptions had an effect on the climate of the time, notably Soufriere on Saint Vincent in the Caribbean in , Mayon in the Philippines in , and the titanic Tambora eruption in Indonesia in the latter with one hundred times the ash output of Mount Saint Helens. The author noted that placing the climatic events of the Little Ice Age in a proper context in terms of human history has been subject to some debate. Many archaeologists and historians are suspicious of environmental determinism, of the notion that climate change alone was the reason for such major developments as agriculture or a particular war.

However, others had felt that climate had played very little or no role in human history, and that Fagan completely rejects, primarily because throughout the Little Ice Age even as late as the 19th century , millions of European peasants lived at the subsistence level, their survival dependent totally upon crop yields, generally what they themselves grew on land they owned or rented. It was centuries before even parts of Europe at first the Netherlands and Britain developed modern specialized commercial agriculture with intensive farming and growing of nitrogen-enriching plants and animal fodder on previously fallow land and reasonably reliable transportation networks to distribute food to larger areas.

During most of Europe for the Little Ice Age, cycles of good and bad harvests, of cooler and wetter springs, meant the difference between hunger and plenty.

Geographic extent

This sufficiency or insufficiency of food was a powerful motivator for human action. Fagan wrote that while environmental determinism may be "intellectually bankrupt," climate change is the "ignored player on the historical stage. For instance while Flanders and the Netherlands in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and England in Stuart times really began to modernize agriculture, little innovation occurred in France, with late eighteenth century French agriculture very little different from medieval agriculture, leaving millions of poor farmers and city dwellers at the edge of starvation and at the mercy of the vagaries of climate.

While the decision to not modernize rested in the hands of the nobility who were uninterested and in the peasants who were often deeply suspicious of change and wedded to tradition , it was the climatic events of the late eighteen century that lead to the awful harvest of , the politicization of the rural poor, and the path to the French Revolution. Apr 17, Sarah rated it really liked it Shelves: , nonfiction. Technically I did not finish this, since I had to take it back to the library before I could finish the last three chapters, but I did skim them.

So, I read this book. In its entirety. Don't try to talk me out of it.

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Very informative! It seems that weather gets ignored a lot in history, when weather played a pretty big role in deciding the survival of life itself in the pre-industrial world. The only time it gets mentioned, really, is when it plays a large role in some single struggle, like the w Technically I did not finish this, since I had to take it back to the library before I could finish the last three chapters, but I did skim them.

The only time it gets mentioned, really, is when it plays a large role in some single struggle, like the wrecking of the Spanish Armada or French knights being killed because their horses got stuck in the mud. Or, heck, the Donner party, though there was some human stupidity involved in that, too. I found it very useful to be able to put historical happenings in the context of their environment. It really has helped me enrich my understanding of the late medieval period.

Did you know that there were vineyards in England in the 13th century, prior to the beginning of The Little Ice Age? And that they produced excellent wine?

I didn't! Now I do. At times, it seemed to read like a list of weather disasters and crop failures, but that was all right. This isn't a social history book -- it's a weather history book. Mar 22, Richard Reese rated it it was amazing. Once upon a time, Brian Fagan became curious about how history has been shaped by climate.

The Little Ice Age: how climate made history 1300-1850

He did a remarkable amount of research, and then delivered a fascinating and very readable book, The Little Ice Age. Mainstream history tends to focus on rulers, empires, wars, and technology, providing us with a pinhole perspective on ages past. Fagan used a wide angle lens, and revealed how the miserable peasantry of Europe struggled to survive in a world of daffy rulers, steamroller epidemics, wildly er Once upon a time, Brian Fagan became curious about how history has been shaped by climate.

Fagan used a wide angle lens, and revealed how the miserable peasantry of Europe struggled to survive in a world of daffy rulers, steamroller epidemics, wildly erratic weather, and the ever-present threat of famine — a highly insecure existence in a world with no safety nets, and brief life expectancy. Most of our detailed, regularly recorded weather data is less than years old.

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Older writings made note of climate conditions, times of prosperity, famines, plagues, and natural disasters. The annual rings in tree trunks are thicker in ideal weather and thinner in lean years. The annual layers of ice in glaciers are thicker in cold years, and thinner in warm ones. In this way, climate leaves a fingerprint pattern that we can decode.


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Ice also preserves ash residue, marking volcanic activity, which can have significant effects on weather. While climate can vary from year to year, and day to day, modern climate science has discovered broader trends in weather patterns. Fagan examined three trends: the Medieval Warm Period , the Little Ice Age , and the warming trend of the fossil-fuelled industrial era. In northern Europe, the years between and were the warmest period in the last 8, years. There were vineyards in England. Generous grain harvests fed a population explosion, which naturally triggered a rash of bloody conflicts.

Because of the warm weather, sea levels rose between and , creating challenges for the lowlanders. Fields became lakes or knee-deep mud. Floods erased entire villages. Wars had to be cancelled. The population, which had exploded between and , now had to share a puny harvest, if any. The survivors eagerly awaited a return to normal weather in , but rains resumed in the spring. Livestock diminished, crops failed, prices rose, and the roads were jammed with wandering beggars.

Many villages were abandoned. People dined on pigeon dung, dogs, cats, and the corpses of diseased cattle rumors of cannibalism. By the spring of , they had eaten their seeds, and had few oxen to plow with. The rains returned. There were seven years of bad harvests, creating steady employment for gravediggers. For the next years, the weather got colder, and there were more storms. Frigid spells might last a season or a decade. Cold weather was extreme from to London trees froze and split open, and the Thames was covered with thick ice.

Chilly summers led to poor harvests from to You could walk across the ice from Denmark to Sweden in the winter of This book is jammed with stories of weather-related problems — floods, droughts, crop failures, epidemics, famines, and food riots. Most people struggled to survive via subsistence farming, using primitive technology. Under ideal conditions on prime land, planting a bushel of wheat would produce just four or five bushels at harvest time. Because of this low productivity, feeding society required the labor of nine out of ten people.

Famine was common, and food relief was rare. It fuels overpopulation, converts healthy wild ecosystems into wreckage, enslaves plants and animals, and requires inequality and brutality. It is proprietary — all the big juicy melons in that field belong to my group, and our field is strictly off-limits to any other creature. If I steal your horse, then its power becomes mine.

In the insatiable pursuit of wealth, people will lie to your face, snatch your purse, cut your throat, bomb cities into ashtrays, and destroy entire planets. The legions of hungry dirty peasants who produced the wealth were expendable, and lived in a manner that none of us would tolerate — while the lords gaily feasted.

Spinal deformations from the hard labor of plowing, hefting heavy grain bags, and scything the harvest are commonplace. Arthritis affected nearly all adults. Most adult fisherfolk suffered agonizing osteoarthritis of the spine from years of heavy boatwork and hard work ashore.

The Little Ice Age : how climate made history, / |

The shelves at the store are always full, a wonderland of easy calories. We have no memories of the hellish life of muscle-powered organic agriculture. We have forgotten how recently our ancestors died from famines and pestilence. As the cost and scarcity of energy increases, our bubble will surely pop. Fagan gives us an eye-opening preview of what life is likely to look like when the fossil fuel bubble becomes the subject of scary old fairy tales The Big Bad Consumer.

As our miraculous machines run out of fuel, we will have no choice but to slip and slide into a muscle-powered future, which will be anything but unnaturally soft and cozy. He also warns us that climate change is often not smooth and gentle. History is full of sudden catastrophic shifts.