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How to face a little ice age

The planet’s history is marked by short periods of climate change and the most recent one, has decided the fate of whole peoples.

by Daniele Signorelli
02 July 2020
7 min read
byDaniele Signorelli
02 July 2020
7 min read

One of the most important concepts in climate science is natural climate variability. In the very briefest of terms, that means complex natural processes (on or outside earth) that can change the planet’s climate, sometimes drastically, over time. And it’s been a long-standing source of bother to scientists, who’ve spent decades trying to demonstrate that the changes going on now are caused by humans and not natural outbursts.

It’s because of variability on earth that the climate constantly changes by itself, regardless of man, over long intervals of time. These intervals can last even hundreds of millions of years and are known as ice ages. They can be divided into alternating glacial and interglacial periods, or cold and warm climate phases. The last cold phase that stands out in the history of the earth’s climate, though not a true ice age, is known as the Little Ice Age. It was a period of cooling much shorter than a glacial period, lasting from the mid 14th century to the mid 19th, the dawn of the Second Industrial Revolution.

In climatological terms, the Little Ice Age was a phase within the interglacial period that we still live in.

Atavic temperature changes

But that’s not to say the chill that descended over the earth in those five centuries was small beer. Far from it. The cold in the frozen Arctic Ocean was so harsh that Dutch whalers had to wait through the spring and early summer for the hunting grounds they’d returned to for decades to melt. “Temperature anomalies were probably longer-lasting and more severe than any had been for millennia, especially in the Northern Hemisphere,” explains, Dagomar Degroot, a professor of environmental history.

Around the middle of the 13th century, some parts of the Northern Hemisphere began cooling in response to a cocktail of complicated factors, among them the earth’s axes shifting, fluctuations in the atmospheric and ocean currents, and a series of volcanic eruptions that littered the sky with sulphur dioxide. The latter reflected the sun’s rays and stopped them getting to the earth’s surface. But the frostiest cooling was in the 15th century and even more so in the 17th. It was only towards the middle of the 19th that temperatures started rising again, then surged ever faster, eventually unleashing the global warming and climate crisis – this time manmade – that we’re going through now.

For a long time it was thought that these climactic ups and downs had wrought devastation on countless societies, bringing many of them to their downfall and proving human beings were defenceless against the might of the heavens, incapable as they were of adapting their societies and economies to the climate change around them.


On 6 February 2020, glaciers melted all over as weather stations recorded the hottest temperature on record for Antarctica

A matter of adaptation

There’s no shortage of examples: Vikings once settled in Greenland but had to abandon it around the 15th century, when the cold laid waste to their farms and robbed them of their livelihoods. Frost covered Central America out of season, spoiling the Aztecs’ harvests again and again; the resulting famines weakened the empire’s people before European soldiers even turned up. It was the same story with the Khmer Empire of South-East Asia, which flourished between 800 and 1400, before it was destroyed in part by the brutal economic fallout of drought, interspersed with violent monsoon rains.

From the Americas to Europe to Asia, the Little Ice Age, all on its own, set off migration, civil wars and famine. It turned even the most advanced civilisations upside down. Or did it? In fact many civilisations showed themselves far more capable than is generally thought of adapting to the massive trouble posed by climate change. They altered their societies and economies and were able to bounce back quickly and seize new opportunities to prosper. As for the civilisations that were buried under the frost of the Little Ice Age, the cooling was not the only cause of their demise. Let’s go back to the Vikings in Greenland. Thanks to the latest studies, we now know that the Arctic island’s 5,000 Scandinavian inhabitants did not stay in the same rut when it came to farming. Rather, they learnt to journey even hundreds of miles to hunt walruses and take their ivory and skin, then trade these in Europe for iron, which is not easy to come by in the Arctic. At the same time, they came up with innovative irrigation systems and made themselves less dependent on farming, relying more on hunting seals and reindeer. In short, the Norsemen adapted quickly and successfully to the climate cooling. They reformed their subsistence economy and their commerce to meet new demands. It was very different things that made the Viking settlements in Greenland vanish. For instance the migration of the Thule, the ancestors of today’s Inuit, led to clashes with the Vikings over the best hunting land. At the same time, changing tastes in Europe meant the market for ivory collapsed, depriving the Norsemen of their main export.

Elsewhere in the world, some peoples actually managed to make the most of the new weather conditions. In North America, the Iroquois adapted to the changes as they happened in the 16th and 17th centuries, favouring hunting over farming, setting up smaller settlements and decentralised networks of villages that shared their resources – dwindling, of course – among themselves when the need arose. The Algonquins, meanwhile, gave up their old egalitarian social model and adopted more of a hierarchy, to better protect their cornfields from rival tribes.

The Netherlands example

On the other side of the pond, the Dutch Republic’s success in the 17th century (at the time it had the highest GDP of any nation) was at least in part a direct consequence of its ability to adapt to the changing climate. Shortages in certain foods, which might have led to famine elsewhere, were no real bother in Dutch coastal towns, whose people had a varied diet. Meanwhile the age’s changing wind patterns sped up some commercial voyages from Holland, further aiding the Dutch Republic’s economic expansion, and spurred on some new inventions. When frequent storms set fire to their wooden houses, for instance, the Dutch came up with new firefighting techniques, like the hose, which was invented by the Dutchman Jan van der Heyden. Merchants came up with new forms of insurance to protect themselves from growing risks.

In brief, man was not the helpless victim of this unusual period of history. Where he could, he reaped some rewards from the trouble stirred up by the climate. But why is it important to emphasise this? Not to underestimate the problem. On the contrary, as the historian Jon Gertner has pointed out, thinking humanity is already doomed is the most dangerous outlook; it could discourage us from taking the action we need to reduce the effects of climate change as best we can.

As we’ve seen, the changes of the Little Ice Age, which were only just out of the starting blocks when they ended, had a massive impact on our ancestor’s lives. They prompted migration, war, fire, famine and more. But the future is in our hands.