Which of these ring in your mind when you hear the word ‘Little Ice Age’: primitive people wearing animal skins trekking across miles of continental glaciers, desperately looking for food or Snowball Earth?
Glaciologists have proved that there have been numerous ice ages. A larger number of them occurred before human beings first appeared on the planet. And the most familiar image of ice ages is relatively a mild one. However, some ice ages went beyond just northern hemisphere ice sheets to the point that the entire planet froze over, for hundreds of millions of years – Snowball Earth.
Well, planet earth seems to have three distinct settings:
- Greenhouse: The global temperatures, particularly in the tropical regions, rise to a point where there are no ice sheets.
- The ‘icehouse’: There may be some ice sheets, but their extent varies significantly.
- Snowball Earth: The entire planet freezes to form a giant snowball!
One of the major mysteries glaciologists have been unable to explain fully is why ice periodically advances and retreats.
It’s easy to forget how variable global climate can be from a geological time perspective. This is because these extreme changes are hard to imagine. Actually, glaciologists are still puzzled over how the planet emerged from the most recent ice age. It is an event that ushered in a warm climate and probably the rise of human civilization.
Think of it this way…
Within a geological blink of an eye, continental glaciers in the northern hemisphere began to collapse gradually. Warm temperatures spread quickly southwards. There was a point in time when crocodiles swam in freshwater lakes in the North Pole, and probably health palm trees grew in Antarctica.
This sounds like a wild imagination, but the earth oscillates between phases with all ice sheets and phases without ice. Currently, we are in the middle phase. Probably this is the main reason we all have a faulty perception of global climate as stable and accommodating.
The Little Ice Age
In the approximately 5,000 years of documented human history, there was only a single period in which humans got a real taste of the climate’s potential for moodiness. This period began early 14th century and lasted for a couple of hundreds of years.
It is during this epoch, often referred to as the Little Ice Age, the global temperatures dropped by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. While this doesn’t sound like much change compared to the extremes associated with Snowball Earth, people who lived through this period documented that it was dramatic.
Philipp Blog, a Vienna-based historian, strongly believes that it’s no coincidence that there is a complicated link between economic, intellectual, and social disruptions associated with the changing climate and the exploration, emerging markets, and the intellectual freedom. The latter was the birth of the enlightenment. The entire Little Ice period marked the end of the Middle Ages and ushered in the modern world.
The changing world
The Little Ice Age appears to be a perfect example of how often humans find a consensus around all aspects of global climate change.
Well, that’s a joke.
For sure, scientists used different techniques to assess historical temperatures. They have proved that during the Little Ice Age period, the earth became cooler. Besides, there are written accounts of ‘increased cold’ in the form of records of wine growers, diaries and letters, sermons, and more.
Whatever the cause of the decrease in temperature, according to Blom’s arguments, the effects were more pronounced. In China, one of the most powerful countries globally currently, the Ming dynasty crumbled in 1644. It was undermined by erratic harvests among other factors.
In the European continent, lakes, rivers, and harbors froze. This led to phenomena including the ‘frost fairs’ on the famous River Thames. Birds iced up and fell dead from the sky, and most women died of hypothermia. Probably you read about the King of France whose beard froze while he was sleeping. It’s not just a story. It’s the reality of ice age.
Some of the famous events in European history have been linked to this ice age. For example, the Spanish Armada was crashed by an unprecedented Arctic hurricane in 1588. Besides, the Great Fire of London in the late 16th century was caused by the extremely dry summer that succeeded the harsh winter.
Do you ever wonder why the most admired violins in human history made by Guarneri and Stradivarious are associated with the Little Ice Age? According to Blom, trees took longer to mature due to the extreme cold, which led to dense wood with outstanding sound quality.
Changes in social institutions
Blom cites research that proves that the most consequential impact of the decreased global temperature was the disruption of the grain harvest. This created a fundamental shift in social order in the entire European continent and beyond. The Little Ice Age caused long periods of continent-wide and probably global agricultural crisis. For hundreds of years, grain harvests didn’t reach the previous yield level, and this affected the fabric that held societies together.
Before this epoch, society was more organized along feudal lines. A more significant number of the population was peasant farmers who toiled in farmlands owned by the wealthy ‘Lordly’ social class. Typically, town life was dominated by highly restrictive guilds. As documented by Blom, this lifestyle valued social capital but didn’t encourage anyone to go beyond their station. This kind of social order had lasted for so many centuries.
But things changed with the advent of Little Ice Age.
Panics, food riots, uprisings, and rebellions became common. Coupled with the spike in witch hunt and trials, these sudden, negative changes weakened the social cohesiveness. In the pre-scientific world, witches were believed to be directly responsible for weather changes. So, who was responsible for the falling temperatures and chaos associated with it?
Yes… at least that’s what most people thought. And it made sense just like any other explanation.
Over time, more pronounced society structural shifts emerged. Peasants didn’t have surplus grain for their feudal lords, and the entire feudal system collapsed. Local crops were failing, trading activities got disrupted, the money concept, and the ability to purchase or even sell something with cash took on a significant role. Cities such as Amsterdam and others gradually became thriving economic centers of rapidly growing commercial networks. What’s more, the population in these areas grew tenfold within just 100 years.
It is during this period when markets and laws of markets emerged and took on a critical role in human affairs. The new dispersion created a foundation for the new breed of ruthless, ambitious, and money-minded man. Amsterdam became a home of the world’s biggest company (Dutch East India Company), an exploitative business organization. Blom’s works reveal a story of Jan Pierterszoon Coen, an official in the Dutch East India Company, who burned down the Jakarta City and led an expedition to punish every trader who violated the company’s code.
He executed merchants, killed about 15,000 people in the islands, and even sold their supervisors to slavery. Blom argues that the rule of markets and exploitation became inseparable, a situation that led to the justification of the exploitation of both people and natural resources. This would later worsen and lead the entire world to the contemporary moment of environmental issues.
But not everything associated with the Little Ice Age was negative. The 17th and 18th centuries were majorly characterized by the rapid expansion of trade across Europe and the formation of empires. This was linked to the growth in technology and more sophisticated methods of harnessing nature’s power. Besides, these 200 years saw the specialization of agricultural regions that gave rise to international markets.