What Was Life Like In The Little Ice Age–Part II
In Part I we started to review the book “The Little Ice Age” by Brian Fagan, a Professor of Archaeology. If you have missed it, you can catch up with Part I here.
Everything that follows is based on the book.
Storms and Floods
Drawing by Hans Moser in 1570 of Scheldt flood
It was not only the cold that was a problem during the Little Ice Age.Throughout Europe, the years 1560-1600 were cooler and stormier, with late wine harvests and considerably stronger winds than those of the 20th Century. Storm activity increased by 85% in the second half of the 16th Century and the incidence of severe storms rose by 400%.
Perhaps the most infamous of these storms was the All Saints Flood in November 1570, which worked its way northeast up the North Sea.The storm brought enormous sea surges ashore in the Low Countries, flooding most of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Dordrecht and other cities and drowning at least 100,000 people. In the River Ems further north in Germany, sea levels rose an incredible four and a half meters above normal.
In 1607 another storm caused even greater floods in the Bristol Channel with flood waters rising 8 meters above sea level miles inland.
Later in the 17th Century, great storms blew millions of tonnes of formerly stable dunes across the Brecklands of Norfolk and Suffolk, burying valuable farm land under meters of sand. This area has never recovered and is heathland. A similar event occurred in Scotland in 1694. The 1400 hectare Culbin Estate had been a prosperous farm complex next to the Moray Firth until it was hit by another huge storm which blew so much sand over it that the farm buildings themselves disappeared. A rich estate had become a desert overnight and the owner, the local Laird, died pauper three years later.
The Great Storm of 1703 is recognized as the most powerful storm ever recorded in England and caused immense damage there as well as across the North Sea in Holland and Denmark.
Cold, Snow and Ice
Between 1680 and 1730, the coldest cycle of the Little Ice Age, temperatures plummeted and the growing season in England was about five weeks shorter then than now. The winter of 1683/4 was so cold that the ground froze to a depth of more than a meter in parts of south west England and belts of ice appeared off the Channel coast of England and northern France. The ice lay up to 30 miles offshore along the Dutch coast and many harbours were so choked with ice that shipping halted throughout the North Sea.
Another exceptional winter was that of 1708/9. Deep snow fell in England and lasted for weeks while further East people walked from Denmark to Sweden on the ice as shipping was again halted in the North Sea. Hard frosts killed thousands of trees in France, where Provence lost most of its orange trees and vineyards were abandoned in northern France, not to be recultivated until the 20th Century. In 1716 the Thames froze so deep that a spring tide raised the ice fair on the river by 4 meters! The summer of 1725 in London was the coldest in the known temperature record and described as “more like winter than summer”.
After a warm interlude after 1730, when eight winters were as mild as the 20th Century, the cold returned. The temperature of the early 1740’s was the lowest in the Central England Temperature record for the entire period from 1659. Even in France thousands died of the cold and when the thaw came “great floods did prodigious mischief”.
Although temperatures started to gradually increase in the mid 19th Century, another cold snap in 1879 brought weather that rivalled the 1690’s. After a below freezing winter, England experienced a cold spring and one of the wettest and coldest summers on record. In some parts of East Anglia, the harvest was still being brought in after Christmas. The late 1870’s were equally cold in China and India , where up to 18 million died from famines caused by cold, drought and monsoon failure.
The cold snap persisted into the 1880’s and 1890’s when large ice floes formed on the Thames.
Fishing and Sea Conditions
During the 17th Century conditions around Iceland became exceptionally severe. Sea ice often blocked the Denmark Strait throughout the summer. In 1695, ice surrounded the entire coast of Iceland for much of the year, halting all ship traffic. The inshore cod fishery failed completely, partly because the fish may have moved offshore into slightly warmer water. On several occasions between 1695 and 1728, inhabitants of the Orkney Islands were startled to see an Inuit in his kayak paddling off their coasts. These solitary hunters must have spent weeks marooned on large ice floes. As late as 1756, sea ice surrounded much of Iceland for as many as thirty weeks a year.
The cod fishery off the Faeroe Islands failed completely as the sea surface temperature became 5C cooler than today, while enormous herring shoals deserted Norwegian waters for warmer seas further south.
As climatic conditions deteriorated, a lethal mix of misfortunes descended on a growing European population. Crops failed and cattle perished by diseases caused by abnormal weather. Famine followed famine bringing epidemics in their train, bread riots and general disorder. Witchcraft accusations soared, as people accused their neighbours of fabricating bad weather.
Farming was just as difficult in the fledgling European colonies of North America where there were several severe drought cycles between 1560 and 1612 along the Carolina and Virginia coasts.
From 1687 to 1692, cold winters and cool summers led to a series of bad harvests. Alpine villagers lived on bread made from ground nutshells, whilst in France, wine harvests were delayed till as late as November. Widespread blight damaged many crops, bringing one of the worst famines in Europe since 1315. Finland lost perhaps as much as a third of its population to famine and disease in 1696-7.
Things did not improve. 1739 brought more problems, ruining grain and wine harvests over much of western Europe, while winter grain yields were well down because the ground was too hard to plough for weeks.
By 1815, Europe was struggling with yet another cold spell, when the Tambora eruption made matters a whole lot worse. The following year was described as “ The year without a summer”. In France the grain harvest was half its normal level and southern Germany suffered a complete harvest failure. In Switzerland grain and potato prices tripled, and 30000 were breadless, without work and resorted to eating “sorrel,moss and cats”.
Inevitably such suffering brought with it social unrest, pillaging, rioting and criminal violence. The famine encouraged many to emigrate to America, although in Saint John’s, Newfoundland, 900 were sent back to Europe because there was so little food in town.
The crisis of 1816/7 was the last truly extensive food dearth in the Western world and its effects ranged from the Ottoman Empire, to parts of North Africa, large areas of Switzerland and Italy, western Europe and even New England and Canada. Other parts of the world were also badly affected such as China. Death tolls are hard to calculate but 65000 may have perished in Ireland, while in Switzerland the death rate could have doubled. The death toll would have been much worse in England and France but for the availability of and ability to efficiently distribute reserve stocks of food.
For anyone who wishes to explore this period further, Brian Fagan’s book is available here.