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The Great Dying and the Little Ice Age: Unraveling a climate mystery
Exploring forgotten chapters of climate history
First time here? Story Voyager is a climate fiction newsletter I email to subscribers. This article is the first in a series of non-fiction articles about climate change in the Holocene. Or you can start by reading There Is Hope my climate fiction series.
Winter was coming
In the winter of 1608-09, Henry IV, the king of France, awoke one morning to find his handsome beard—a henriquatre—iced over. This was the beginning of one of the most brutal winters in recorded history, and it turned Europe into a frosted world. In his book Nature’s Mutiny, Philipp Blom writes that the Thames was frozen so solid that a Frost Fair was erected on it, wine froze solid in its barrels, and deep snow-covered parts of Spain.
A century later, Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV, also woke up one morning to a frozen continent. Fortunately, le Roi Soleil sported only a thin mustache when the Great Frost or Le Grand Hiver happened overnight. The winter of 1709 is recorded as the coldest winter in the past 500 years, with temperatures ranging from −12°C in London to -16°C in Paris and -25°C in Beauce, France. The temperature dropped to -18°C in the Bordeaux region for 2 months. It was so cold that ice birds fell from the sky, fish froze in lakes and livestock in the stables, tree trunks shattered, church bells fractured when rung, and water, food and wine froze solid in the pantries. Le Grand Hiver brought food shortages and claimed the lives of 630,000 people only in France, the largest European country at that time.
The Little Ice Age
These extreme weather events were part of the Little Ice Age, a period of global cooling that started in the Northern Hemisphere around 1250 and ended around 1860. The Little Ice Age mainly affected Europe and was likely the coldest period of the last 8,000 years. Global temperatures dropped significantly by -1°C from around 1400 and by -2°C from 1560 onwards in Eurasia, particularly the Atlantic region, bringing brutal winters and cold summers with hailstone or snow. This era was marked by severe storms, weeks of rain, unrelenting frost and years of summer drought, such as the heatwaves from 1473 and 1540.
The Little Ice Age led to famine, disease, and social unrest. Interestingly, the decline in wine production contributed to the disease outbreaks. Before they learned that boiling water kills germs, Europeans were used to drinking watered-down wine to keep diseases at bay. For example, the biggest wine producer in Vienna was a hospital, the Bürgerspital, and Viennese people had a yearly wine consumption of 150 liters per capita, including children.
Initially, Europeans thought that the catastrophic weather was brought by witches. But the ruina mundi—the world's destruction—continued despite the witch trials. The search for food and resources pushed the Europeans to form trading routes and go on religious Crusades, which, in turn, introduced them to ancient science, setting the basis for a new worldview.
Carolus Clusius (1525-1609) helped establish modern botany, and his work changed the landscapes and even the nutrition of an entire continent. He introduced the tulip from Constantinople to the Netherlands and the potato from the New World, contributed widely to the botanical Renaissance of the old continent and is considered the father of all beautiful European gardens.
Ambitious merchants like the Dutchman Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587-1629) established trading empires by exploiting faraway lands. He made the Dutch East India Company a success story by employing questionable means, such as burning the city of Jakarta to the ground, publicly executing competitors who sold nutmeg without his permission, hunting people until they starved and selling the survivors into slavery. The slave trade flourished because the cost of purchasing and feeding a slave was minimal compared with their profitability over a working lifespan of five to ten years, their average period of survival.
The influx of wealth led to the establishment of universities that turned traditional social systems upside down, giving opportunities to ‘dirty people of no name’ from farmer or merchant families to voice their views of the world. Rene Descartes, the son of a middle-class lawyer, studied science in France, applied his mathematical knowledge in a military career and later furthered his incursions into science in aristocratic salons and in the budding Dutch universities that encouraged free thinking. Rene Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, set the basis for the modern scientific view of the world where ‘reason, empirical knowledge, and logic alone can get to the heart of things’.
A new worldview was taking shape, giving birth to the Enlightenment with philosophers such as Voltaire (1694-1778), who believed that ‘individual greed could serve the common good’ and that merchants, not aristocrats, were society’s true heroes.
But could the European world expansion prompted by the Little Ice Age help, in return, worsen the extreme climate conditions?
A climate mystery
The term Little Ice Age was coined in 1939 by François E. Matthes, a geologist and climate change expert. Initially, it referred to the resurgence of the Sierra Nevada glaciers in California during the cooling that followed the Holocene Thermal Maximum, a warm period during 9000 - 5000 BC. The Little Ice Age (LIA) was preceded by the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA) or Medieval Warm Period (MWP), and the transition from MCA to LIA took place gradually between 1200 and 1400 AD.
Several factors are considered for what caused the Little Ice Age. Each of these factors is influential at different timescales, from millennia to centuries to decades, and they represent phenomena that are not easily correlated.
Orbital forcing: During the Little Ice Age, Earth’s orbital variations, more precisely precession and obliquity, caused a decrease in summer insolation or the amount of solar radiation energy received by our planet during summer and a slight increase in winter insolation. According to scientists, this is the backdrop of the Little Ice Age. However, the transition from the Medieval Climate Anomaly to the Little Ice Age is more complex, and more factors must be considered.
Volcanic activity: The volcanic events around 1200 and 1260 AD, including the eruption of Samalas in Indonesia around 1257 AD, the largest volcanic event of the last 1,000 years, caused several years without a summer and contributed significantly to the glacial advance around 1380 AD.
The Medieval Climate Anomaly: The warm climate of the Medieval Climate Anomaly enhanced iceberg calving and weakened the North Atlantic circulation. Scientists argue that sea-ice and freshwater exports from the Arctic Ocean, which commenced abruptly around 300 AD and ended in the late 1300s, initiated the abrupt onset of LIA. Some researchers even think this alone was enough to start the Little Ice Age.
Land use changes: A team of scientists from Stanford University published a research paper in 2008 that found that land use changes in the Americas contributed to the cooling trend in the Little Ice Age.
The Great Dying
When Christopher Columbus arrived at the shores of the Caribbean island that he baptized Hispaniola, he met a handsome people called the Arawak Indians who lived on a paradisiac island with beautiful sandy beaches, trees laden with fruits, beautiful harbors and lush vegetation. Christopher Columbus instantaneously became a huge fan of the Arawak Indians who shared their gold and food with him and whom he described as ‘the best people in the world’, and he found it impossible to believe ‘that anyone has seen people with such kind hearts’.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 at the shores of the Caribbean island Hispaniola with the royal mission ‘to discover and acquire certain islands and mainland sea’, there was a population of at least 100,000 Arawak Indians. By 1514, only about 32,000 were left and by 1542, only 200. At first, the Arawak Indians were asked to pay high gold and spun cotton tributes. When they failed to fill the quotas demanded by their new masters, the lands and their people were handed over to the Spanish, who enslaved, tortured and fed them to the dogs.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 at the shores of the New World, which he never learned that he discovered, there was a population of approximately 60.5 million indigenous people living in the South and North America. By 1600, about 90% of the population (about 55 million people) died. This period is known as the Great Dying.
Researchers have explored connections between the Great Dying and the Little Ice Age in Europe. It's suggested that the Little Ice Age might have been influenced by the extinction of native populations in the Americas. This was the ripple effect:
Virgin soil epidemics: The introduction of diseases unknown to the Americas, such as smallpox, measles, and the bubonic plague, caused up to 95% mortality, leading to societal breakdown and reduced agricultural activity. Typically, the mortality caused by virgin soil epidemics is 30%. Still, the indigenous population was hit by several epidemics over 100 years. Whoever survived the first epidemic was struck by the second, and so on.
Land use changes: Native populations practiced agriculture on a scale that significantly transformed their environment. Research shows that a pre-Columbian population of 60.5 million would have used 0.5 to 1.5 ha of land per capita. Thus, the death of 55 million people led to the abandonment of approximately 56 million ha of land, which underwent secondary succession, a type of ecological succession in which plants and animals recolonize a habitat after a significant disturbance such as human activity.
Carbon storage: New vegetation stores substantially more carbon over a short time. Research suggests that, in the 100 years after 1517, 7.4 Pg C (carbon) was removed from the atmosphere and stored on the land surface following the Great Dying, contributing to a decline in atmospheric CO2 corresponding to a drop of approximately 3.5 ppm. This is consistent with an abrupt 7 to 10 ppm decrease in atmospheric CO2 between 1500 and 1600. The research concludes that land use changes in the Americas contributed about 4.4 ppm in atmospheric CO2 reduction.
Cooling period: The Little Ice Age coincided with the population decline in the Americas. The period between 1577 and 1694 is the only significant global cooling in the past 2000 years and the only period when the Little Ice Age went global. The researchers conclude that ‘these changes show that human actions had global impacts on the Earth system in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution’.
In his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable Amitav Ghosh writes about the difficulties of addressing climate change in literary fiction. How do you include ‘forces of unthinkable magnitude that create unbearably intimate connections over vast gaps in time and space’ in narratives?
Understanding the Little Ice Age from a scientific and historical perspective is similar. Next to the astronomical and geological events that account for the onset of the Little Ice Age, human activity is a surprising factor when contemplating climate change in the pre-industrial era.
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel thought that indigenous Americans could not build a culture because ‘cold and heat are too powerful to allow a mind to construct a world for itself’. Not only did the indigenous Americans have a rich culture, but they also did agriculture at a scale that, when interrupted, caused global climate change. Moreover, they were crafty enough to grow foods and plant varieties that could survive in extreme climate conditions, thus saving Europeans from starvation and helping them survive the partly self-induced climate change conditions.
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The Little Ice Age was part of a series of cooling events in the past 5,000 years, and ancient farmers might have played a role in all of them. I’ll reveal more in the next article from my series on climate change in the Holocene.
In the meantime, I would like to hear from you!
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Join the discussion in the comments section.
The variable European Little Ice Age by Heinz Wanner, Christian Pfister, Raphael Neukom
Winter Is Coming: Europe’s Deep Freeze of 1709 by Juan José Sánchez Arreseigor
Great Frost of 1709: The Coldest Winter in 500 Years Killed 600,000 by Hrothsige Frithowulf
Columbus’ Confusion About the New World by Edmund S. Morgan
The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh