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What Was Life Like In The Little Ice Age? – Part I

November 1, 2011


        It is widely accepted that the planet has warmed up by a degree or so since the end of the Little Ice Age about 150 years ago. We are regularly told that this increase in temperature has already  caused  widespread damage to the global environment, from dead polar bears and rising sea levels to extreme weather and famine. The implication is clear – the world was a much better place 200 years ago. But what was it like back then? Were conditions then really better than now?

         There is an interesting book out called “The Little Ice Age” which describes life during those times. The author, Brian Fagan, is a Professor of Archaeology and I should add that it is clear from his book that he is a firm believer in AGW. It contains a good deal of useful information. (Everything that follows is based on the book).

Medieval Warming Period

A look back to the Medieval Warming Period offers an insight into how things changed in the following centuries. Most people are aware that the Vikings colonised and farmed parts of Greenland in ways that are still to this day not possible. In Europe summer temperatures were between 0.7C and 1.0C warmer than 20th Century averages. Central European summers were even warmer, as much as 1.4C warmer than now. During the height of the Warm Period, so many lords quaffed prime English wines that the French tried to negotiate trade agreements to exclude them from the Continent.

Populations rose sharply during medieval times. Numerous examples are quoted which show how crops were grown at altitudes where crops cannot be supported today such as Dartmoor and the Pennine Moors. In Scandinavia farming spread 100 to 200 meters farther up valleys and hillsides in central Norway, from levels that had been static for more than 1000 years. To the south in the Alps, tree levels rose sharply and farmers planted deeper and deeper into the mountains. During late prehistoric times, numerous copper mines had flourished in the Alps until advancing ice sealed them off; late medieval miners reopened some of these when the ice retreated.

This quote from the book seems to sum up the times.

For five centuries, Europe basked in warm, settled weather, with only the occasional bitter winters, cool summers and memorable storms. Summer after summer passed with long, dreamy days, golden sunlight and bountiful harvests. Compared with what was to follow, these centuries were a climatic golden age.


Eirik the Red is credited with discovering Greenland in the 10th Century and Viking colonists followed him to set up farming settlements as far north as Godthab. They found the green summer pastures were better than either back home in Norway or Iceland. However in the 13th Century Greenland and Iceland experienced increasing cold. Sea ice spread south creating difficulties for Norse ships sailing from Iceland as early as 1203. By 1250 many fewer ships made the crossing to Greenland and those that did had to take a more hazardous route further south in the open Atlantic to avoid pack ice off southeastern Greenland.

Around 1350 a Norse party from the Eastern settlement in Greenland ventured north to aid the Western settlement around Godthab. They found the settlement deserted and discovered that the inhabitants had butchered their dairy cows (in direct violation of ancient Norse Law) and finally resorted to eating their prized hunting dogs. The ice core analysis for 1343-1362 reveal two decades of much colder summers than usual.

In 1492 Pope Alexander VI remarked “shipping to Greenland is very infrequent because of the extensive freezing of the waters – no ship having put into shore, it is believed, for eighty years”. Around this time the Norse gave up their foothold at the warmer Eastern settlement. The Little Ice Age had started.


Extent of the Little Ice Age

There is been plenty of historical evidence which confirms the existence of a much colder climate in much of Europe between the 14th and 19th Centuries. This is not surprising because there is such a wealth of historical records and documents which has been handed down from the Europe of those days. The book however presents considerable evidence that the phenomenon was a worldwide one:-

1) In New Zealand the Franz Joseph glacier was “a mere pocket of ice on a frozen snowfield nine centuries ago”…. “Then Little Ice Age cooling began and the glacier thrust downslope into the valley below smashing into the great rain forests that flourished there, felling giant trees like matchsticks. By the early 18th Century, Franz Joseph’s face was within 3 km of the Pacific Ocean” .

“ The high tide of glacial advance at Franz Joseph came between the late 17th Century and early 19th Century, just as it did in the European Alps”.

2) “ Glaciers in the European Alps advanced significantly around 1600 to 1610, again from 1690 to 1700, in the 1770’s and around 1820 and 1850”.

3) “ Ice sheets in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies and Mount Rainier in the NW United States moved forward simultaneously”.

4) “ Glaciers expanded at the same times during the 19th Century in the Caucasus, the Himalayas and China.

5) “The Qualccaya ice core in Peru provides evidence of frequent intense cold from 1500 to 1720, with prolonged droughts and cold cycles from 1720 to 1860”.

6) “ High mountains in the Andes of Ecuador were perennially snow-capped until the late 19th Century”

7) “Travellers in Scotland reported permanent snow cover on the Cairngorm Hills at about 1200 meters”

8 ) “The late 1870’s were equally cold in China and India, where between 14 and 18 million people perished from famines caused by cold, drought and monsoon failure.

9)  Again in the 1870’s “Antarctic ice extended much further north than in Captain Cook’s time a century earlier.”… “Sailing ships traversing the Roaring Forties from Australia to Cape Horn regularly sighted enormous tabular icebergs, with some seen as far north as the mouth of the River Plate, just 350 south latitude”

10) “In Norway, glaciers advanced destroying farms and burying valuable summer pasture”.



We tend to regard alpine landscapes today such as those in Switzerland as being picturesque and think that the people there live in an beautiful idyll. It was not always so. In the 16th Century the occasional traveller would remark on the poverty and suffering of those who lived on the marginal lands in the glacier’s shadow. At that time Chamonix was an obscure poverty stricken parish in “a poor country of barren mountains never free of glaciers and frosts…half the year there is no sun…the corn is gathered in the snow…and is so mouldy it has to be heated in the oven”. Even animals were said to refuse bread made from Chamonix wheat. Avalanches caused by low temperatures and deep snowfall were a constant hazard. In 1575 a visitor described the village as “a place covered with glaciers…often the fields are entirely swept away and the wheat blown into the woods and onto the glaciers”.

In 1589 the Allalin glacier in Switzerland descended so low that it blocked the Saas valley, forming a lake. The moraine broke a few months later, sending floods downstream. Seven years later 70 people died when similar floods from the Gietroz glacier submerged the town of Martigny.

As the glaciers relentlessly pushed downslope thousands of acres of farm land were ruined and many villages were left uninhabitable such as La Bois where a government official noted “where there are still six houses. all uninhabited save two, in which live some wretched women and children…Above and adjoining the village there is a great and horrible glacier of great and incalculable volume which can promise nothing but the destruction of the houses and lands which still remain”. Eventually the village was completely abandoned.

The same official visited the hamlet of La Rosiere in 1616 and found" “The great glacier of La Rosiere every now and then goes bounding and thrashing or descending…There have been destroyed 43 journaux of land with nothing but stones and 8 houses, 7 barns and 5 little granges have been entirely ruined and destroyed”.

Alpine glaciers, which had already advanced steadily between 1546 and 1590, moved aggressively forward again between 1600 and 1616. Villages that had flourished since medieval times were in danger or already destroyed. During the long period of glacial retreat and relative quiet in earlier times, opportunistic farmers had cleared land within a kilometer of what seemed to them to be stationary ice sheets. Now their descendants paid the price with their villages and livelihoods threatened.

Between 1627 and 1633 Chamonix lost a third if its land through avalanches, snow, glaciers and flooding, and the remaining hectares were under constant threat. In 1642 the Des Bois glacier advanced “over a musket shot every day, even in August”.

By this time people near the ice front were planting only oats and a little barley in fields that were under snow for most of the year. Their forefathers had paid their tithes in wheat. Now they obtained but one harvest in three and even the grain rotted after harvesting. “The people here are so badly fed they are dark and wretched and seem only half alive”.

In 1715 the village of Le Pre-du-Bar vanished under a glacier caused landslide. The glacial high tide in the Alps came around 1750 and gradually the glaciers began their retreat, much to the relief of the people who lived there.


[ Let me be absolutely clear – those who regret the retreat of glaciers in recent times show a total ignorance of and disregard for the horror and suffering of the communities that had to live with their constant threat.]

Part II – Storms, Floods and Famines – follows soon

  1. nofreewind permalink
    November 6, 2011 12:39 am

    Nice synopsis. I always recommend Fagan’s books. Also read The Great Warming and the El Nino book. What is so fascinating about the author is that he is a AGW believer, yet just about every single page of his books disprove this silly theory of climate “change” being a recent phenomena. Why is that? I’ll tell you why. Because a great author and detective such as Fagan would be a big nobody if he didn’t put in those pages that he is a “believer”. Since he clearly writes he is with the crowd, he gets to have his little fun as an accomplished author. Yet even so, his work is completely ignored by the establishment who don’t even consider looking backward into history to consider that climate change may have existed prior to the past 10-20 yrs. We live in an age where stupidity and ignorance are glorified.

    • November 6, 2011 10:47 am

      What struck me about Fagan was that he made it perfectly clear that scientists have no idea what caused the MWP or LIA. But then he goes on to say, without seeming to realise the contradiction, that the warming from the 19thC onwards was due to CO2. As we don’t know what caused the the first two, how can we be confident the latest warming is not part of the same cycle?

      • J.T. Wenting permalink
        November 11, 2011 2:18 pm

        but now we have Al Gore telling us what’s true. Back then we didn’t so we had to rely on things like common sense and science…

  2. Mike Davis permalink
    November 7, 2011 1:44 pm

    The globe has not returned to the conditions of the MWP, when the inhabitants did not enjoy the conditions experienced during the Roman Warm Period. During the so called LIA there were periods similar to what we now experience of about the same duration. Because they can only get a rough idea of conditions after they happen, we will need to wait another 200 years to find out what the climate was like during our life time. The only thing that has changed over the last 800 years is the degree of accuracy and spacial extent of the records. The variations in weather patterns are probably about the same now as they have been for that period of time. Remember it was not considered the LIA during the event but was named when researchers thought it was over. I just think it was part of the long term cooing the globe has been experiencing for 8000 years with short warm intermissions that seem to be getting shorter and overall cooler than those before!

  3. Mike Davis permalink
    November 7, 2011 1:53 pm

    I am a firm believer in AGW! All the warming that is being reported is most likely a result of the methods used to measure and record the changes in temperature. That means the changes are caused by Mann! 😉 Using the “Proper” Al-Gore-Rhythm you can get the BEST results that fit your agenda. It is a Travesty you do not believe in Global Climate Weirding!

    • November 7, 2011 8:31 pm

      Your just a clever clogs Mike aren’t ya! I nearly fell over when you said “I am a firm believer in AGW!”.

      • Mike Davis permalink
        November 7, 2011 11:21 pm

        I just think if it was not for the climatologists making claims about global temperatures there would be no AGW to speak of! Look how much warming Big Jim has produced since 1988 and his dog and pony show where he went before congress to beg for funding so his group would not be closed down because of all the money being wasted on their fairy tales!

      • Jon permalink
        June 27, 2014 6:55 am

        Maybe that’s what they mean when they state the debate is over? The UHI in and the adjustments of the DATA is 100% AGW. That debate is definitely over many years ago?

    • catweazle666 permalink
      June 27, 2014 12:08 pm

      “I am a firm believer in AGW!”

      So am I. Every time I boil a kettle it happens.

      It’s just that you would need lots and lots of digits after the decimal point before it became noticeable, and it would not persist for very long.

      Unless you’re the NOAA, that is…

  4. ozspeaksup permalink
    November 8, 2011 11:47 am

    whats really worrisome in this history, is the very short timeframes stated for advancing glaciers and loss of arable land.
    Today to the shame of the majority of Australians, our Unelected PM and rabidgreen cohorts signed our lives away to the fiction of Warming..
    total and utter refusal to consider any but the prowarm biased “science”
    in spite of ever growing documented PROOF of global temps Not rising, nor the oceans, etc etc..
    May JuLIAR gillard, and Bob Browns names be remembered with the loathing and ridicule such fools deserve.
    in good company with Gore Strong and Holdren

  5. Bennett permalink
    November 10, 2011 1:09 am

    I agree with ozspeaksup, and I’d much rather take a degree of warming per century rather than the rapid decline into freezing seen during the LIA.

  6. November 10, 2011 5:37 pm

    I’d like a return to the The Older Peron transgression, back when the Garden of Eden was kickin’ off and doing its thing, and the Sahara was a grassland savanna…

  7. sophocles permalink
    November 12, 2011 6:37 am

    ” In New Zealand the Franz Joseph glacier was “a mere pocket of ice on a frozen snowfield nine centuries ago”…. “Then Little Ice Age cooling began and the glacier thrust downslope into the valley below smashing into the great rain forests that flourished there, felling giant trees like matchsticks. By the early 18th Century, Franz Joseph’s face was within 3 km of the Pacific Ocean” .
    Interesting. The Pacific Ocean is approximately 220 km away to the east from the Franz Joseph Glacier which debouches from the western side of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
    Perhaps the author meant the Tasman Sea? (that’s the water on New Zealand’s West Coast.) Maybe not a lot of people know that … 😉

  8. November 12, 2011 11:57 pm

    the earth climate always changes 12,000 years ago chicagostan was under 1/2 mile of ice

    • November 13, 2011 10:59 am

      I’d be more worried now about the next LIA. They seem to come round about every thousand years, so the next one could be a couple of hundred years away. And yet we are worrying about an odd degree or two of warming by then.

      • ozspeaksup permalink
        November 13, 2011 12:56 pm

        heard that the supposed “at risk of sinking, flooding”…ho hum, have their hands out for megabucks to cover the fantasy 1 metre sea rises.
        seeing as it took 100 years to rise a very few mm and that entire rise seems to have dropped back….well personally i suspect a fast grab with Durban as a kicker to try and cash in fast before the whole carbon fraud falls deeper in the mire.
        classic case is a pacific islands new jetty, built so high that the loading/unloading of it is actually risking injuries due to the gap between the jetty and all the shipping:-)
        planned ahead they did, pity what they planned for isnt true.

  9. February 11, 2013 12:15 am

    Everything is very open with a clear description of the issues.
    It was definitely informative. Your site is useful.
    Thank you for sharing!

  10. April 10, 2013 7:42 am

    An intriguing discussion is worth comment.
    I think that you should publish more about
    this subject, it may not be a taboo subject but generally people do not talk about such subjects.
    To the next! Many thanks!!

  11. June 26, 2014 7:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Tallbloke's Talkshop and commented:
    Paul Homewood reviews Brian Fagan’s book on the LIA – Part 1

  12. Doug Proctor permalink
    June 26, 2014 10:48 pm

    Mike Davis PERMALINK
    November 7, 2011 11:21 pm
    I just think if it was not for the climatologists making claims about global temperatures there would be no AGW to speak of!

    This has been noted before by skeptical experts. The point is that only by measuring it are we aware there is a difference. Local variations in weather is greater than the alleged changes in climate. You need statistics to see the difference.

    Only a few years ago we were beset with a flood of flesh-eating disease cases. Calamity! for the general population, it went. But there was no change, only we were identifying them AND the MSM journalists learned about them. Plus we had a Premier of Quebec lose a leg to the bacillus. Was there a real surge? Can’t tell as stats were not so good before the panic. Same with climate change. If we didn’t do all the fancy adjustments we were be at the 0.3 – 0.6C temp rise since the 1880’s. Would that have been enough for a panic? Probably not.

  13. Don B permalink
    June 27, 2014 12:49 am

    This is not the first book which shows that the LIA was devastating. Look at Geoffrey Parker’s “Global Crisis, War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.”

  14. August 25, 2014 6:32 pm

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  15. Tim? permalink
    October 6, 2014 6:43 pm

    i’m really confused.. like, i’m not on the side of this or that, but, i DO have a mind and can think for myself. With this in mind, i am not so daft as to think that my existence here on this planet has no effect on it at all. Does anyone here realize the immense requirements for a human in the 1st world? or realize the fact that the earth works in closed loops? yet we are excavating and burning off carbon that had been buried long ago. as in we are adding in massive amounts of carbon that was once stored, not to mention all of the other practices that add to this issue. How can anyone really believe our lives have zero effect, is the denial that bad? can’t you see how we are like a tumor eating away that which gives u life. Why am i here? because i realized this took place, in fact we are in a little little ice age right now, and will be for the next twenty years.

    Last thing on ‘global warming’ does anyone really believe the temperatures, or rather, overall highs are just going to shoot up?? everything would burn, all life would cease, the earth doesn’t work that way. however, any gardener pretty much knows this, and there is very real empirical data over a short period. what we are seeing are overall lows are going up, hardiness zones are marching north and its not as cold over the long term or absolute lows as it use to be. i’ve always paid attention to the weather, and its not like it was when i was young. long term change is one thing, rapid change on a planetary scale is something else entirely.

    am i saying we understand exactly what we are doing or how thats going to effect this or that? no. the G8 meeting going back into the 60s and you can read the transcripts talked about climate change/global warming and used both terms. this isn’t something that the institutes of the world are just now recognizing, they then were looking at the same things now, the human lifestyle.

    again, this isn’t about warming climates, this is about rapid modification of the earth’s biome and what thats going to mean for life on earth in the near future


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