How the Little Ice Age Changed History

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tags: climate change, global warming, Science, ice age

It is easy to forget just how variable the climate of the earth has been, across the geologic time scale. That is partly because the extent of that variability is so difficult to imagine. A world entirely covered in ice, from pole to pole—the so-called snowball earth—is something we find it hard to get our heads around, even though the longest and oldest period of total or near-total glaciation, the Huronian glaciation, lasted for three hundred million years. A world without ice is also hard to visualize, though it is by comparison a much more recent phenomenon: perhaps only thirty-four million years ago, crocodiles swam in a freshwater lake we know as the North Pole, and palm trees grew in Antarctica. The reality is that our planet oscillates between phases with no ice, phases with all ice, and phases in the middle. The middle is where we happen to be right now—a fact that is responsible for our faulty perception of the earth’s climate as accommodating and stable.

In the roughly five thousand years of recorded human history, there has been one period in which we have had a real taste of our climate’s potential for moodiness, beginning around the start of the fourteenth century and lasting for hundreds of years. During this epoch, often known as the Little Ice Age, temperatures dropped by as much as two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Compared with the extremes of snowball earth, that might not sound like much, but for people who lived through it the change was intensely dramatic. This was also the period between the end of the Middle Ages and the birth of the modern world. In a new book, “Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present” (Liveright), the German-born, Vienna-based historian Philipp Blom argues that this is no coincidence—that there is a complex relationship between the social, economic, and intellectual disruption caused by the changed climate and the emerging era of markets, exploration, and intellectual freedom which constituted the beginning of the Enlightenment.

The Little Ice Age is an example of how we so often find complete consensus around every aspect of climate change. Just kidding. We know for sure that the earth became cooler: the evidence can be found through a variety of techniques for assessing historical temperatures, such as the study of ice cores and tree rings. There are also extensive written accounts of the cold in the form of letters and diaries, sermons, the records of wine growers, and so on. The cooling happened in phases, with an initial drop beginning around 1300, and a sharper and more abrupt onset of cold starting in 1570 and lasting for about a hundred and ten years. It is the latter period that provides the focus for Blom’s book. Agreement about the fact that the cooling occurred, however, is not matched by an equivalent consensus about why.

Read entire article at New Yorker

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