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A Potted History of Glaciers

November 10, 2021

By Paul Homewood

A friend recently suggested that “melting glaciers” must surely prove “global warming is true”.

It is a common belief. After all, glaciers are a visible phenomenon and it all sounds logical.

As you know, I have written extensively about glaciers, (see the “glaciers” tab on the sidebar). But it is worth posting this potted history of them:

Middle Ages


As glaciers recede in Alaska, scientists are finding the remains of forests previously buried by the ice.

Above is an example at the Mendenhall Glacier, where carbon dating reveals the trees are between 1200 and 1400 years old. Other older trees have also been found.

Exactly the same is happening elsewhere in Alaska, at the famous Exit Glacier, below. The trees there are a similar age:



These are not just odd trees, but the remnants of great forests. It is clearly evident that the glaciers then were much smaller than they are now.

And it is not only Alaska. At the other end of the continent in Patagonia, more buried trees are turning up, though these are younger, between 250 and 460 years old (See here).

A similar pattern can be found around the world, as the next section illustrates.

Little Ice Age

Beginning in the 16thC, Alpine glaciers began to advance down the valleys. We know this because of thee wealth of historical accounts from the time. This was of course the beginning of the period known as the Little Ice Age.

Historian Brian Fagan described in his book, The Little Ice Age, just what a horrifying calamity this was for those who lived there:

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. 

Glaciologists also know that similar advances were taking place on glaciers all around the world, including Alaska, Greenland, the Canadian Rockies, South America, the Caucasus, the Himalayas and China.

Even New Zealand did not escape, Brian Fagan writes:

In New Zealand the Franz Joseph glacier wasa 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.

Modern Era

We all know that the same glaciers which grew massively a few centuries ago are now retreating. What many people don’t know is that this process began around the late 18th and early 19thC.

Surprising though it might sound, explorers were already mapping Alaskan glaciers in the 18thC. The map below shows how the glacier edge progressively retreated after 1760. Most of the glacier had disappeared even before 1900, whilst glacier loss has been relatively small in recent years.


In the Alps it was a similar story. The Rhone Glacier reached its maximum extent in the late 18thC, and, according to HH Lamb, had already receded half a mile by 1870. Most had disappeared by 1950:




HH Lamb: Climate History & The Modern World




The modern day retreat of glaciers is part of a much longer natural cycle. Indeed, we find evidence of that cycle going back long before the Middle Ages.

Lamb, for instance, claims that glaciers in the Alps and Norway were advancing between 800 and 400BC, reaching an extent almost as great as during the Little Ice Age. They advanced again around AD600 to a similar position as before.

In between times, of course, the same glaciers also retreated, both during the Roman Warm Period and the Medieval Warming Period.

Whether man-made warming has played any part in modern glacial retreat, we know that:

  • Most of the retreat since the 18thC occurred before any possible impact from humans.
  • Glaciers were smaller than now in the Middle Ages
  • There is nothing unprecedented or alarming about the current state of the world’s glaciers

All of this is common knowledge amongst glaciologists. But for some reason the world of climate science does not want the public to know.

  1. Malcolm Bell permalink
    November 10, 2021 2:38 pm

    In the meantime the liberal arts world drives forward its dreams of neo-pastoralism, neo-romantic naturism and blindly into total economic collapse and starvation. It is going to be actual chaos perhaps in less than 50 years. Worse; by then “science” as delivered by the woke academic world will be totally discredited and so using it to rebuild will be near impossible.

    Are we looking at a new Dark Age within a century?

    • T Walker permalink
      November 10, 2021 3:17 pm

      That long Malcolm??

    • europeanonion permalink
      November 11, 2021 9:06 am

      I was at a concert at a university church last night. In the interval, people whom you would think would know better, tore their hair shirts over a perceived state of our ecology laden with the negative tropes that we have become use to encountering. That these academics should feel that they will be lionised for defeatism is a more worrying threat than nuclear holocaust, or global warming. This accretion to populism and the air of hopelessness is palpable. Two things occurred to me in that church, the building was of a brick construction and the internal use of wood was both extensive and extraneous.

      That they were sitting in the midst of a building furnished by taxation derived from industry, that had bricks in profusion produced from heat and had embellishment of massive balks of timber, part of somebody’s forest, countered all the weaselly deferring to less use of fossil fuels, the dreadful felling of forests and the leisure time that industry was providing for people to be there with the main purpose of enjoying music and broadening their minds. Secondly, I was struck by the total medieval atmosphere that was induced. They spoke of the density of population and the loss of space, those in medieval times, between the forest and the swamp inhabited a small area; the fact that those people were haunted by superstition equates to the modern propensity for creating shibboleths out of blather and the new shaman ‘knowing’ outcomes and preferring the dire above all others, like that old church threatening sin with the devil and creating sin out of anything that lessened their control.

      The only perceptible difference between then and now, seems to be that, formally, the world imposed itself on humans, then they yearned for answers to their intractable problems and in the absence of remedies deferred to soothsayers and necromancy. Today, while lifted above the fears of monsters, able to understand and deal with plagues, informed and consulted in the direction of our existence we are now subjected to the new slavery of being controlled by media moguls and news that has to be theatre. Then, they had the coming of the Italian Renaissance, that urgent and pleasurable sloughing off of the torture of ignorance. Today, information is power and its manipulation, ‘nudging’ is deemed a legitimate way of turning the herd. Hope has temporarily gone out of the window and unless someone can rekindle the light this nascent era of ignorance will swamp us all. Ignorance is a lack of rationale, submission. That was abundantly self-evident last night.

      • Jim Le Maistre permalink
        November 11, 2021 2:46 pm

        Mr. Walker,

        This was a brilliant depiction of our current social indoctrination at the hands of propagandists from the camp of Environmentalist theology. They ask for Wind Mills and Electric Cars without the slightest hint of science. Ohms Law for one and what are the input costs to building infrastructure. Great Propagandists eternally have swept science off the table leaving the ‘ignorant masses’ emboldened by hyperbole.

  2. Broadlands permalink
    November 10, 2021 2:43 pm

    One of the more common responses from global warming alarmists is that the current warming (ice melting?) is taking place so much faster because of our increasing use of fossil fuels for energy. What they don’t seem to grasp is that it is not the rate of increase in CO2 that counts. It’s the total at the end. It’s true that CO2 is up 150% since pre-industrial time but the net result in temperatures is up only 6% in degrees C. Back in the Medieval Warm Period or in the Little Ice age. CO2 was ~280 ppm. Today it is 415 ppm. And the Earth is greening as it was when the Vikings were in Greenland. They were not using fossil fuels, but a renewable: wood.

    • Mike Jackson permalink
      November 10, 2021 4:48 pm

      Go back and do your calculation again, Broadlands. The current atmospheric concentration is at 150% of what it was pre-IR,not “up 150%”.
      And “up 6% in degrees C” is meaningless. You could equally say it is up 3.5% in degrees F or 0.34% in degrees K.
      I’m sorry but these figures are misleading and meaningless. It’s like saying 10°C is “twice as warm as 5°C”. Our activist friends just love these “stands to reason” arguments. Does all their work for them!

    • bobn permalink
      November 10, 2021 6:29 pm

      Struggling with your new maths. ‘CO2 is up 150% since pre-industrial time’ but ‘CO2 was ~280 ppm. Today it is 415 ppm. Hmm 67% in my old maths.
      Not that it matters as CO2 is nearly inert and has near nil thermal capacity. Go to 1000ppm and you’ll still need heating in the UK winter.

      • Chaswarnertoo permalink
        November 11, 2021 7:53 am

        Burn all available fossil fuels and you still cannot get to,the desirable level of over 1000 ppm.

  3. Coeur de Lion permalink
    November 10, 2021 3:05 pm

    Off thread, but has COP26 noticed Boris’s windmills are now producing 5% of our electricity? Gas and nuke flat out, demand not particularly high at midday.

  4. MrGrimNasty permalink
    November 10, 2021 3:14 pm

    An asinine EON advert starts with some bloke wittering on ‘this glacier has been here thousands of years and it will have melted within decades’. After a bit of digging it seems he is referring to somewhere in the Alps, but it is well known that the Alps have been almost if not entirely glacier free in the time span of a few thousand of years.


    “More information on the mid-Holocene warm period, when the glaciers were smaller than today, is direly needed so that we can better predict how the glaciers will respond to the anticipated future climate over the next 50 years,” says Bethan Davies at Royal Holloway, University of London.

    • Mad Mike permalink
      November 10, 2021 4:39 pm

      Yes, I don’t think that Hannibal would have had too much success in crossing the Alps with all those elephants. I remember seeing a programme in which they showed what they thought, after extensive research, Hanniball’s route had been. It is full of snow now, even in the summer, and only an idiot would have led an army across that and he was far from being stupid.

      • Mad Mike permalink
        November 10, 2021 4:50 pm

        The first line should have been of course. I don’t think Hannibal would have had too much success in crossing the Alps with all those elephants had the place been full of glaciers.

      • Phoenix44 permalink
        November 10, 2021 5:32 pm

        Nor would Cathage have been much of a place if today’s climate had been their climate. North Africa was greener and wetter because it was warmer. That’s why North Africa was the breadbasket of Rome.

        There is so much evidence outside climate science (which is almost entirely modeling now) that shows past climates were at least as warm, but they simply don’t want to know.

  5. T Walker permalink
    November 10, 2021 3:29 pm

    H/T Ron Clutz over at Science Matters – thank you Ron

    Ron is currently highlighting this 5 part series by David Stockman

    Well recommended – the science and the financial politics all in one – links to further parts at the bottom of each essay..

  6. Tim Spence permalink
    November 10, 2021 3:56 pm

    It doesn’t add up to a hill of beans what the glaciers do, 90% of the world’s ice is in Antarctica and it’s growing. Recent years have seen nett gains 20 to 60 billions tons of ice per year. The Antarctic ice-sheet is ten times the area of the Greenland Ice-sheet, which itself it 2-3 km thick in places.

  7. John Hultquist permalink
    November 10, 2021 4:09 pm

    ” A friend recently suggested ”

    I wonder if your friend has ever seen (been on) a glacier.
    I suggest a visit to 2,3, 4 — and discover the history thereof.
    They are fascinating places. Tip: Go on a nice summer day.

    • T Walker permalink
      November 10, 2021 6:17 pm

      I stood on the Athabasca Glacier John, on a late June day 20 years ago. The guide told us that you would never see the glacier in better weather – see for ever, little wind and wall to wall blue sky. One week later Alberta had huge floods.

    • Mal Fraser permalink
      November 11, 2021 11:31 am

      Er, best to rope up and be capable of crevasse rescue and navigate in poor visibility.

  8. Jim Le Maistre permalink
    November 10, 2021 5:09 pm

    Brilliant summation of Global Glaciation.

    I have found all the same conclusions in my own research and could not say it any better.

    I will add this . . .

    When Ice Packs covered little more than 65 -75 % of Greenland between 950 and 1450 during the Middle Ages, and Glaciers of the World had receded, why did the Coastal Cities of the World NOT flood? History, Science and Natural Cycles teach us different lessons from those we are being taught by the IPCC and the ‘Man-Made Climate Change’ Provocateurs. These are NOT simple straight-line mathematical calculations. Every part of The Earth’s Cycles is Globally Interconnected. Life on Planet Earth is dictated by Nature, as it always has been. Nothing will ever change this! When glaciers melt, Continents rise on the mantle while the Oceans compress the mantle from the increased volume of water coming from Glacial Melt. The cycles of Nature will continue as they always have for Billions of years, randomly, and on into our undefinable future . . . on our Little Blue Planet . . . into eternity.

  9. Paul Fitton permalink
    November 10, 2021 5:37 pm

    The Alaska series Michael Portillo program ,I think the second ,had him meet an Alaskan academic Glaciologist . She expressed a very balanced view of cycles of advance and retreat . When asked about the carbon she said “ We’re interested in much longer term causes “and listed solar activity , how far we were from it etc.
    Interestingly she has been removed from the episode on You Tube. Maybe Roger saw it also . BBC censorship?

    • Slingshot permalink
      November 10, 2021 7:22 pm

      I saw this episode, too, and was amazed that it got past the censors. It didn’t matter how Portillo tried to steer that level-headed glaciologist along the “accepted” path, she refused to comply. She raised a cheer in this household.

  10. November 10, 2021 5:37 pm

    “Times of feast times of Famine” is a magisterial account by E Roy Ladurie of the advance and decline of Glaciers over several thousand years with an equally impressive account of good and bad grape seasons due to the weather.

  11. November 10, 2021 6:41 pm

    In the ice age CO2 was 1000ppm and life survived. In green houses with piped CO2 1000ppm plants flourish

    This link featuring eminent scientist Patrick Moore, a founding member of Greenpeace and who left the organization when it changed direction, is quite excellent in debunking the AGW fabrication:

  12. ThinkingScientist permalink
    November 10, 2021 7:57 pm

    I made a poster presentation which included a lot of technical material on glaciers on the issue of how they provide data seriously in conflict with climate models. This was at a Climate Change conference run by the Geological Society London in May 2021 (fair to say as a sceptic I was not made….especially….welcome). I think the story is quite interesting. If our host here would be prepared to facilitate I would be prepared to post.

    Don’t want to coat rack or steal any thunder though. PH has my email – contact if any interest.

  13. Bassline permalink
    November 10, 2021 8:41 pm

    The HH Lamb image doesn’t show up

  14. cookers52 permalink
    November 11, 2021 3:57 am

    The BBC report that COP26 has not produced the answer to climate change. But what was the question?

    Outside the protesters call for change, but what, how, who or when is not defined

    The 1.5 degree target is going to be missed, but this target is not achievable as it isn’t actually an answer its part of a question.

  15. November 11, 2021 12:04 pm

    To go along w/ Dr. Patrick Moore’s comments on low CO2, several years ago I saw a video of a lecture from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. It was given by a scientist from the Berea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles, discussing the extinction of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene glaciation.

    He cited work done by a Dr. Ward (I believe). I looked up her paper cited and several more she and colleagues had written on the subject. It seems as though the extremely low CO2 levels at the end of the glaciation, led to plants being depauperate and not even producing fruits/seeds. This led to diminishing food for herbivores and thus diminishing numbers of herbivores for the carnivores.

  16. Nick Anaxagoras permalink
    November 11, 2021 6:18 pm

    By reflecting away 30% of the incoming solar radiation the albedo, which could not exist w/o the atmosphere or GreenHouse Gases, renders the Earth cooler than it would be without that atmosphere much like that reflective panel propped up on the dash makes the car cooler.

    Remove the atmosphere or GHGs and there would be no more water vapor or clouds, no ice and snow, no vegetation, no oceans and no more 30% albedo. The Earth would become much like the Moon, a barren rocky orb with a 10% albedo receiving 20% more kJ/h, hot^3 400 K on the lit side, cold^3 100 K on the dark. Nikolov, Kramm (U of AK) and UCLA Diviner mission all tacitly agree.

    That is NOT what greenhouse theory says.

    For the GHGs to warm the terrestrial surface “extra” energy must rise up from the surface radiating long wave infrared energy as an ideal black body. Refer to Figure 1 of (TFK_bams09.pdf ( and numerous clones.

    This theoretical “extra” black body scenario is impossible because of the non-radiative, i.e. kinetic, heat transfer processes of the contiguous atmospheric molecules and as demonstrated by experiment, the gold standard of classical science. This experiment can be accessed at this link:

    The RGHE theory is as erroneous as caloric, phlogiston and luminiferous ether.

    Mankind’s GHGs are not responsible for the alleged global mean surface temperature anomaly increase of 1.2 C over 140 years.

    This barely detectable change is noise in the data, instrumentation drift, urban heat island effect, natural variation, i.e. insignificant and NOT some kind of dangerous trend.


  1. A Potted History of Glaciers – Watts Up With That? - News7g

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