Fagan: The Little Ice Age

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Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age : How Climate Made History 1300 – 1850. New York : Basic Books, 2000. xxi + 246 pages; illustrated with maps and charts; with notes and index.

Between 1400 and 1814 there were 23 documented cases of the Thames River, in London, freezing over. In the late 17th century "Frost Fairs", festivals held on the frozen river, were quite popular. They were possible only because of the unusually cool climate during what has become know as "The Little Ice Age", several hundred years sandwiched between two warm spells – the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from about 900 to 1300 AD, and the present global warming, which began in about 1850.

Author Fagan tells stories of the period through a most compelling narrative, with at least two objectives in mind: to get a clearer sense of how global climate change comes about on a world-wide scale, and to illuminate the social impact of such large-scale changes in climate.

In The Little Ice Age I argue that human relationships to the natural environment and short-term climate change have always been in a complex state of flux. To ignore them is to neglect one of the dynamic backdrops of the human experience. Consider, for instance, the food crises that engulfed Europe during the Little Ice Age—the great hunger of 1315 to 1319, which killed tens of thousands; the food dearths of 1741; and 1816, "the year without a summer"—to mention only a few. These crises in themselves did not threaten the continued existence of Western civilization but they surely played an important role in the formation of modern Europe. We sometimes forget how little time has passed since Europeans went hungry because of harvest failure. Some of these crises resulted from climatic shifts, others from human ineptitude or disastrous economic or political policy; many, like the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, from a combination of all three—and a million people perished in that catastrophe. its political consequence are still with us.

Environmental determinism may be intellectually bankrupt, but climate change is the ignored player on the historical stage. This is partly because of a long-held and erroneous assumption that there were few significant climatic shifts over the past millennium that could possibly have affected human societies, and also because few archeologists or historians have followed the extraordinary revolution in paleoclimatology over the past quarter-century. Now we know that short-term climatic anomalies stressed northern European society during the Little Ice Age, and we can begin to correlate specific shifts with economic, social, and political changes, to try to assess what climate's true impact may be. (I focus on northern Europe in these pages, because this is the region that was most directly affected by atmospheric/ocean interactions during the Little Ice Age and where climatic data are most abundant. The effects on Mediterranean lands are still little understood.)

The Little ice Age is a narrative history of climatic shifts during the past ten centuries and some of the ways in which people in Europe adapted to them. [p. xv]

Evidently "environmental determinism" is a bugaboo that has bedeviled some academic departments, a looming shadow that had made several authors defensive (Jared Diamond also comes to mind). "Environmental determinism" has never seeped into my consciousness but it sounds like a caricature anyway—who would be naïve enough to think the environment determines all of social history? Likewise, though, who could honestly deny that climate necessarily plays a major part in shaping culture's history?

Fifteen thousand years have passed since the end of the last glacial episode of the Great Ice Age. Sine then, through the Holocene (Greek: recent) era, the world has experienced global warming on a massive scale—a rapid warming at first, then an equally dramatic, thousand-year cold snap some 12,000 years ago, and since then warmer conditions, culminating in a period of somewhat higher temperatures than today, about 6,000 years before present. The past 6,000 years have seen near-modern climatic conditions on earth.

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. The last 6,000 years have been no exception. In Roman times, European weather was somewhat cooler than today, whereas the height of the Medieval Warm Period saw long successions of warm, settled summers. Then, starting in about 1310 and continuing for five and a half centuries, the climate became more unpredictable, cooler, occasionally stormy, and subject to sporadic extremes—the Little Ice Age. [p.47]

Fagan takes an historic approach to organizing his material. There's a lot of facts and times and places to sort out and keep in place, but he did an admirable job of making sense of it all, keeping his thesis clearly in view. The result is a deeper understanding for the reader that builds layer by layer into a very complete picture of the consequences of the cooler climate in those few hundred years. It doesn't lead one to conclusions about likely repercussions from the current warming period, except to make clear that social impact and climate effects can be quite out of proportion to a "mere" few degrees change in average temperature.

I liked Fagan's scienticity and his occasional asides to the main story that give more depth to our understanding of the big, big picture. He excels at making careful connections between causes and effects and avoiding glib generalizations.

By 1740, infectious diseases like bubonic plague were no longer a major cause of death in western Europe. The higher mortality of dearth years resulted primarily from nutritional deficiencies that weakened the immune system, or from social conditions that brought people into closer than normal contact, where they could be infected by various contagions. Everywhere in eighteenth-century Europe, living conditions in both rural and urban areas were highly unsanitary. Chronic overcrowding, desperate poverty, and ghastly living conditions were breeding grounds for infectious diseases at any time, even more so when people were weakened by hunger. In preindustrial England, for example, mortality rates increased more as a result of extreme heat and cold.

Most of these deaths came not from chronic exposure, which can affect seamen and people working outside at any time, but from a condition known as accident hypothermia. When someone becomes deeply chilled, blood pressure rises, the pulse rate accelerates, and the patient shivers constantly, a reflex that generates heat through muscle contraction. Oxygen and energy consumption increase, and warm blood flows mainly in the deeper, more critical parts of the body. The heart works much harder. The shivering stops when body temperature falls below 35°C. As the temperature drops further, blood pressure sinks, the heart rate slows. Eventually the victim dies of cardiac arrest.

Most accidental hypothermia victims are either elderly or very young, caught in situations where they are unable to maintain their normal body temperature. Fatigue and inactivity, as well as malnutrition, can hasten the onset of the condition. Few houses in the Europe of 1740 had anything resembling good heating systems. Even today, hypothermia can kill the elderly in dwellings without central heating when indoor temperature falls below 8°C. As many as 20,000 people a year died in Britain from this condition in the 1960s and 1970s, almost all of them elderly, many malnourished. Conditions were unimaginably worse in 1740, even in the finest of houses, were warmth was confined to the immediate vicinity of hearths and fireplaces. The newspapers of 1740—41 carry many stories of death from the "Severity of the Cold." [p. 140]

Another example gives us some details about natural causes to climate change that are understood, and that do contribute to climatic shifts.

Volcanologists have fixed the dates of more than 5,560 eruptions since the last Ice Age. Mount Tambora [in Southeast Asia] is among the most powerful of them all, greater even than the Santorini eruption of 1450 B.C., which may have given rise to the legend of Atlantis. The ash discharge was one hundred times that of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State in 1980 and exceeded Krakatau in 1883. Krakatau, the first major eruption to be studied at all systematically, is known to have reduced direct sunlight over much of the world by 15 to 20 percent. The much larger Tambora event, coming during a decade of remarkable volcanic activity, had even more drastic effect at a time when global temperatures were already lower than today. [p. 169]

I was particularly fascinated by these details that filled out the picture of social impact and kept the narrative lively.

While writing this book, I found myself looking at paintings differently, from a climatic perspective. Look beyond the central theme of a painting and you can explore house interiors and country landscapes, find details of implements of tillage and cooking utensils, admire fine musical instruments and watch a kaleidoscope of changing gentlemen's and ladies' fashions. These fashions were perhaps influenced by persistent cold winters. Women's fashions "exposed the person" somewhat daringly in postrevolutionary France, but as the grip of cold weather increased, designers created warm underwear for their clients, including a "bosom friend," which warmed the chest and hid cleavage that a few years earlier had been daringly expose. [p. 201]

Overall I thought the book was very interesting and informative and high in scienticity, an unexpected page-turner.

-- Notes by JNS

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