The Little Ice Age, Ca. 1300 - 1870

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Prehistory & Roman Middle Ages Early Modern period Modern period
winter severity
Winter severity in Europe, 1000 - 1900. Note two cold periods in the 15th
and 17th centuries. Based on Lamb, 1969 / Schneider and Mass, 1975.1

The Little Ice Age is a period between about 1300 and 1870 during which Europe and North America were subjected to much colder winters than during the 20th century. The period can be divided in two phases, the first beginning around 1300 and continuing until the late 1400s. There was a slightly warmer period in the 1500s, after which the climate deteriorated substantially. The period between 1600 and 1800 marks the height of the Little Ice Age. The period was characterised by the expansion of European trade and the formation of European sea born Empires. This was directly linked to advances in technology harnessing more of nature's power and towards the end of the period fossil-fuelled power. These two hundred years also saw the specialisation of agricultural regions, which produced specific products for local and international markets.

What caused the Little Ice Age?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maunder minimum
The cause of the Little Ice Age is unknown, but many people have pointed at the coincidence in low sunspot activity and the timing of the Little Ice. This so called Maunder Minimum2 coincided with the coldest part of the Little Ice Age, in particular during the period roughly from 1645 to 1715, when sunspots were a rare occurrence, as noted by solar observers such as Cassini and Flamsteed3. A minimum in sunspots, indicates an much less active and possibly colder sun and consequently less energy output to warm the earth.

Positive North Atlantic Oscillaion

North Atlantic Oscillation
The north Atlantic is one of the most climatically unstable regions in the world. This is caused by a complex interaction between the atmosphere and the ocean. The main feature of this is the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), a seesaw of atmospheric pressure between a persistent high pressure cell over the Azores and an equally persistent low presure cell over Iceland. This is the "normal" pattern, called a positive NAO Index, and brings mild and humid air to northwest Europe. Sometimes the pressure cells are trading places and that has severe consequences for the weather in Europe.

Negative North Atlantic Oscillation

When the situation reverses, called a Negative NAO (high over Iceland and low over Azores) the westerlies weaken or even reverse and cold air is streaming over Europe, causing a cold winter here. In negative NAO winters, it is much less stormy over the North Atlantic. Storms and low pressure systems bring humid air from the ocean into the Mediterranean region making it more unsettled in this regionn than normal. The small pressure difference allows northerly air to blow into Northern Europe making the winters dry and sunny but very cold here. There are strong indications that during the Little Ice Age the NAO was more often in a negative mode.

Volcanic eruptions are another possible cause for the Little Ice Age - for example, the year after the Tambora eruption in Indonesia (1815) was known as the "year without a summer." But, the effect of such eruptions might be limited to only a few years so this can not have been the cause for the prolonged climatic variations associated with the Little Ice Age.

After 1870 the Little Ice Age made place for the slightly milder conditions of the 20th century.

Marginal regions

During the height of the Little Ice Age , it was in general about one degree Celsius colder than at present. The Baltic Sea froze over, as did most of the rivers in Europe. Winters were bitterly cold and prolonged, reducing the growing season by several weeks. These conditions led to widespread crop failure, famine, and in some regions population decline.

The prices of grain increased and wine became difficult to produce in many areas and commercial vineyards vanished in England. Fishing in northern Europe was also badly affected as cod migrated south to find warmer water. Storminess and flooding increased and in mountainous regions the treeline and snowline dropped. In addition glaciers advanced in the Alps and Northern Europe, overrunning towns and farms in the process.

Iceland was one of the hardest hit areas. Sea ice, which today is far to the north, came down around Iceland. In some years, it was difficult to bring a ship ashore anywhere along the coast. Grain became impossible to grow and even hay crops failed. Volcanic eruptions made life even harder. Iceland lost half of its population during the Little Ice Age.

Rhone Glacier, ca 1870
Rhone glacier ca. 1870. Source: Wikipedia

Tax records in Scandinavia show many farms were destroyed by advancing ice of glaciers and by melt water streams. Travellers in Scotland reported permanent snow cover over the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland at an altitude of about 1200 metres. In the Alps, the glaciers advanced and bulldozed over towns. Ice-dammed lakes burst periodically, destroying hundreds of buildings and killing many people. As late as 1930 the French Government commissioned a report to investigate the threat of the glaciers. They could not have foreseen that human induced global warming was to deal more effective with this problem than any committee ever could.


Flourishing of European culture

Despite the difficulties in marginal regions, culture and economy were generally flowering in Europe during the Little Ice Age. This is most visible in the way that people transformed their environment during the 17th and 18th centuries with expanding agriculture and large scale land reclamation, for example in the Netherlands and England.

Winter landscape Breughel
Winter landscape by Brueghel the Elder.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Little Ice Age also coincided with the maritime expansion of Europe and the creation of seaborne trading and later colonial empires. First came the Spanish and Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, English and other European nations. Key to this success was the development of shipbuilding technology which was a response to both trading, strategic but also climatic pressures.

Art and architecture also flourished, which is probably best embodied in the wonderful winter landscape paintings which can be considered a direct result of the Little Ice Age. These paintings show us ice-skaters enjoying themselves, a sign that they were more than capable to withstand the hasher winter conditions and that they had also enough food.4 The latter is a key element in the success of European culture at that time.

Agricultural revolution

During the later Middle Ages, slowly but steadily farmers started to experiment with new agricultural methods, in order to adapt to increasingly unpredictable climates and also stimulated by the growth of profitable markets in growing cities and increasing long distance trade.

This initially low technology agricultural revolution started in Flanders and the Netherlands in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Dutch farmers experimented with lay farming, the deliberate growing of animal fodder and cultivating grasslands for cattle. In addition they started systematic breeding of cows and the Frisian milk cow is probably the most famous example of this.

Another innovation was the continuous growing of specialized crops. Instead of letting valuable ground lay fallow, they planted peas, beans and especially nitrogen-rich clover, all of which provided food for humans and animals alike. The vegetables were rotated with grain, turnips and later potato for export but also for feeding dairy cattle. As a result of this system the amount of fallow land contracted rapidly until it totally disappeared. Agriculture became an intensive activity.

The new intensive agriculture produced such a high surplus that Flanders and later the Netherlands could specialize and diversify their agricultural activity. With abundance of fodder, animal and dairy farming (think of Dutch cheese) became increasingly important economic activities. More meat, wool, and leather as well cheese came on the market as the new agriculture broke the dependence on grain. At the same time farmers diversified into industrial crops such as flax, mustard and hops for brewing beer.

This agricultural revolution could not have succeeded without the development of new ships to withstand the harsher climatic conditions imported large amounts of grain form the Baltic, undermining local grain production. These grain imports made the Flemish and Dutch economy independent from climatic fluctuations causing famine.

Land reclamation

Water windmill
Water management technology: water
windmill ca. 1600

Between 1600 and 1800, large areas of the Netherlands, England and some other countries around the North Sea were reclaimed. Notable examples are the draining of lakes in Holland and the reclamations in East Anglia.

The Dutch possessed sufficient technological expertise and a sufficient degree of organization to diffuse the worst effects of short term climatic variations. The Little Ice Age might have imposed more benefits than costs on Dutch society. Extensive land reclamation and the use of new mechanical technology, as well as the intensive exploitation of natural resources (peat) turned liabilities into assets so powerful that they helped to forge the first modern economy in Europe.

Soon the new agriculture and reclamation technologies as well as other mechanical techniques were introduced in Britain where it was all taken a step further in terms of scale and later the improvement movement would make agriculture more scientific. In addition the mechanical technology would be used to develop mechanical machines driven by steam and a new fuel: coal.

It was the start of the Industrial Revolution and the transition from natural power, mainly derived from wind and water, to fossil fuel based industries. Unlocking the power of fossil fuel would transform the relationship between human culture and the natural environment in ways the world had never seen before.

1. H.H. Lamb, "Climatic Fluctuations", in H. Flohn (ed), World Survey of Climatology. Vol.2. General Climatology (New York: Elsevier, 1969), p. 236; Schneider, S. H., and C. Mass, "Volcanic dust, sunspots, and temperature trends", Science, 190 (1975) 741-746.

2. The Maunder Minimum is named after astronomer E.W. Maunder who discovered the absence of sunspots during that period. Recently published data suggests that the Sun expanded during the Maunder Minimum and its rotation slowed. A larger and slower Sun, it is speculated, might also mean a cooler Sun that provides less heat to Earth. (Just why the Sun expands and contracts is not entirely understood).

3. John A. Eddy, "The Maunder Minimum", Science, 18 June 1976, Vol. 192, No. 4254, 1198-1202.

4. Peter J. Robinson, ‘Ice and snow in paintings of Little Ice Age winters’, Weather, Vol. 60, No. 2 (2005), 37-41