Big Trouble in the Little Ice Age Transcript
Are you a climate change denier? Think carefully before you answer. It doesn’t just mean someone who rejects the idea that climate change is happening, or that it might be happening but isn’t a disaster.
There’s another kind of denial. Some people who believe most strongly in modern climate change also resist any discussion of past climate changes. They might worry that if we discover that the climate regularly warmed and cooled in the past, it would mean natural variability might account for some of what is happening today, which would make it harder to keep people in a constant state of panic about greenhouse gases. So a lot of climate activists have gone to great lengths to deny that past events like the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age existed.
They’re climate change deniers, you might say.
So let’s look at the closest climate event in the rear-view mirror to see whether it was real or not. And bundle up, because I’m John Robson, and in this CDN “Backgrounder” we’re going to look at the “Little Ice Age” and its chilling consequences for the world.
The term “ice age” technically means an era with significant polar ice. In that sense we’ve been in one for two and a half million years, an era which is called “the Pleistocene.” But we also use the term “ice age” to mean an interval when great ice sheets slowly advance over the continents. Those last for 80 or 90 thousand years, at which point they melt back and leave a warm landscape for about 10 thousand years before a new ice age starts up again. The warm intervals are called “interglacials” and the one we’re currently in, called the Holocene, started a little over 10 thousand years ago.
Within the Holocene, there have been definite periods of warmer and cooler temperatures. The last major cold period from around 1300 until the mid-1800s, was dubbed the Little Ice Age by Francois Matthes in 1939.
Wikipedia of course rubbishes the LIA as episodic, minor and “largely independent regional climate changes rather than a globally synchronous increased glaciation”. But if glaciers began advancing rapidly in the 14th century around the world, and then retreated rapidly starting in the 19th and into the 20th century, it takes a special kind of determination to call it a regional blip. And that sort of resistance to the concept of the Little Ice Age is exactly the kind of denialism we’re talking about here.
All this matters because, if the Little Ice Age was real, the warming curve after 1850 looks a lot less artificial and more like a natural rebound from a natural cooling episode that preceded it.
Also, the Little Ice Age coincided not with a drop in atmospheric greenhouse gases but in solar activity. It has long been believed that sunspot activity, and solar output generally, fell to historic lows in the early 1600s, an interval called the Maunder Minimum. This is another reason activists don’t like the Little Ice Age, because it suggests the sun’s natural variations might be a significant driver of warming and cooling on Earth.
Now I confess that, when I started studying climate change seriously a quarter century ago, it astonished me, being a history PhD, that anyone seriously denied that temperatures had fluctuated dramatically for natural reasons throughout recorded history and before, including being at least as warm as today 800 years ago and a lot colder 300 years ago. These things used to be taken very much for granted based on abundant historical and proxy records.
For instance, let’s look at Brian Fagan’s popular 2000 historical survey The Little Ice Age. I choose it not only because it’s very thoroughly researched, but because he’s actually a big believer in modern man-made climate change. Mind you he’s also not a “climate scientist”. Instead he’s a geographer with a wide range of knowledge and interest. But what’s important here is he doesn’t have an axe to grind, he just wants to present the facts as they’re known to history.
Fagan confirms many points long believed by historians including that bad harvests, that helped cause the French Revolution, were linked to the cooling that started around 1400. He also thinks it caused an upsurge in witch-burning in 16th century Germany when climatic shifts brought bad weather that wiped out harvests and cattle herds.
Which is very important because modern climate orthodoxy insists, based on computer models, that one reason warming is bad is it brings bad weather. But Fagan’s research paints a very different picture, namely that warming brought good weather and cooling was the problem.
“The generally stable weather of the Medieval Warm Period was an unqualified blessing for the rural poor and small farmers…. But by 1400, the weather had become decidedly more unpredictable and stormier, with sudden shifts and lower temperatures that culminated in the cold decades of the late sixteenth century…. Northern Europe suffered through exceptional storminess. The great gales of August 1588 destroyed more of the Spanish Armada fleet than the combined guns of English warships.”
Fagan even notes that the bitterly cold seventeenth century all but annihilated the Scandinavian cod fishery. Yet today we’re told it is warming that will kill the fish.
Fagan certainly has no patience with the view that climate was stable until the mid-20th century. Rather, he says “Like the Ice Age that preceded it, the Holocene has been an endless seesaw of short-term climate change caused by little-understood interactions between the atmosphere and the oceans.”
And consider the iconic issue of retreating mountain glaciers. It’s frequently cited as proof that something weird has been going on since the 1970. But Fagan says: “The glacial ‘high tide’ in the [European] Alps lasted from about 1590 to 1850, before the ebb began that continues to this day.”
And that ebb was definitely global. By the early 18th century, he points out, New Zealand’s famous Franz Josef glacier was only three kilometers from the coastline. After 1850 it retreated until the early 1890s, surged forward again, retreated in the early 20th century, advanced in the 1920s and then retreated again. By the end of World War Two it had moved at least a kilometer inland compared to the 1890s.
The same pattern was observed in Alaska. In 1923 Professor William Cooper of the University of Minnesota published research showing that Glacier Bay was completely encased in ice when Captain Vancouver reached it in 1794. But the ice began retreating in the 1800s, and by 1920 (a full century ago) it had retreated 60 miles inland, which happens to be close to where the glaciers sit today.
So, when did the warming begin, and what did CO2 have to do with it? Fagan places the start in the early 1800s. And he does blame CO2. He says global land clearing by agricultural settlers in New Zealand, South Africa and North America released large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and triggered warming.
Now that may or may not be the case. But the main takeaway from Fagan’s books is that when he studied the evidence, he had no problem identifying a Medieval Warm Period.
“The heyday of the Norse… roughly from A.D. 800 to about 1200… [was] a period of unusually mild and stable weather in northern Europe… some of the warmest four centuries of the previous 8,000 years” In England “Commercial vineyards flourished 300 to 500 kilometers north of their 20th-century limits…. so many lords quaffed prime English wines that the French tried to negotiate trade agreements to exclude them from the continent.”
Now Fagan’s is of course just one book. But one among many such sources that made me think, when I first realized alarmists were trying to erase the Medieval Warm Period, and the Little Ice Age that followed it, that I was being gaslighted.
Fagan is definitely not the only one. Here’s the editor of Canada’s History magazine 15 years ago:
“the Mediaeval Warm Period (MWP), four centuries of warmer air and sea surface temperatures between 900 and 1300… opened up new vistas to the intrepid Norse… Following the MWP was the Little Ice Age (LIA)… that ended in the mid-nineteenth century. In New York, in 1780, people could walk from Manhattan to Staten Island over the frozen harbour.… The wintry London… in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is replete with snow not often seen in London today. The Little Ice Age was also contemporaneous with a certain fashion trend with important consequences for Canadian history. The beaver hat…”
In her book Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada, written in 2015, Carolyn Harris says matter-of-factly
“The temperate climate created by the medieval warm period of circa 900-1300 resulted in ample grain harvests and an expanding population…. [But] as the climate grew colder, harvests failed. The Great Famine of 1315-17 brought an end to the steady population growth that England had experienced since 1066. The bubonic plague or Black Death arrived in England in 1348…”
And in his highly readable, far-ranging 2003 A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson says “The nineteenth century was already a chilly time. For two hundred years Europe and North America in particular had experienced a Little Ice Age …”
In a bland college survey called Western Civilizations (10th edition, 1984, p. 370) Edward Burns, Robert Lerner and Standish Meacham wrote “To make matters worse, after around 1300 the weather deteriorated.” And in his anything-but-bland 1989 Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer writes that colder weather helped reduce fevers in early colonial New England, but “the mid-seventeenth century was a very grim period in Europe, Asia and America. This was the only era after the Black Death when the population of the Western world actually declined.”
A news story in 2003 even reported that the secret of the Stradivarius violin was an extended period of long winters and cool summers in Italy that began in the mid-1400s and which, by the 1600s, resulted in the growth of unusually dense Alpine spruce which Antonio Stradivari and his contemporaries found was perfect for making violins. “The ice age reached its coldest point during a 70-year period from 1645-1715 known as the Maunder Minimum, which was named after the 19th-century solar astronomer, E.W. Maunder, who documented a lack of solar activity during the period.”
And on and on it goes, including that bit about the sun. Indeed, in his landmark 1997 survey Guns Germs and Steel Jared Diamond wrote (p. 424): “no historian, and probably not even a modern climatologist, could have predicted the Little Ice Age.”
To which I say, no. And nor, I would once have thought, could anyone have predicted its demise.
So where’s the evidence that it was real? Apart from agricultural records and proxies, from tree rings to dripstone isotopes to violins to Daniel Defoe’s 1704 edited collection of eyewitness accounts The Storm, Fagan observes that evidence is preserved in artistic masterpieces. Such as Peter Breughel the Elder's Hunters in the Snow, painted in 1565, Abraham Hondius’ 1676 painting of hunters chasing a fox on the frozen Thames in London, and Thomas Wyke’s 1684 painting of a large fair on the frozen Thames complete with merchants’ booths, sleds and ice boats, an event which went on for weeks. Such carnivals happened every winter in London until the mid-nineteenth century.
As for it being regional, a region that includes Europe, North and South America, China and New Zealand eventually starts to feel global. Especially since there’s also recent evidence of the Little Ice Age in Antarctica as well. So the real question is how anyone could have the gall to deny it.
The evidence clearly shows the Little Ice Age happened and that means what we should be discussing is what caused it to start and to end. And whether those famous computer models can predict it even after the fact. And whether it’s one natural cycle among many, and if so what caused the others?
It’s an inconvenient truth because if we see a natural warming between say 1800 and 1900 that’s as fast as any from 1900 to 2000, what grounds could possibly exist for saying around the time Queen Victoria died, nature passed the baton to Henry Ford?
And if the sun is the culprit in the Little Ice Age, isn’t solar activity important today? And another biggie: if cooling demonstrably brought worse weather in the past, what grounds exist for thinking warming would do so today?
There’s a lot to see here, folks. But it starts with a key question: Did the Little Ice Age exist? Because if so, any theory that says it didn’t is in a heap of trouble.
For the Climate Discussion Nexus I’m John Robson, and that’s our Backgrounder on the very real, very cold Little Ice Age.