15 , 2005
was only a few hundred years ago that the earth experienced
its last ice age. Global temperatures started falling during
the 1300s and hit their lowest points in the late 1700s and
early 1800s. New Yorkers could walk from Manhattan to Staten
Island across a frozen harbor, while Londoners held "Frost
Fairs" on a solid Thames River. Glaciers advanced in China,
New Zealand, and Peru, and snow covered Ethiopian peaks. Diseases,
aided by the change in climate, spread quickly throughout
Europe and Asia. Iced waters delayed shipping from ports,
growing glaciers engulfed farms and villages, tree lines receded,
and agriculture deteriorated, leading to centuries of poor
harvests, famine, and social unrest. Though the average global
temperature dropped only one to two degrees Celsius below
what they are today, the cold spell nevertheless drastically
affected life at this time.
with Skaters Near a Castle' by Adriaen Van de Venne.
Worcester Art Museum
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temperatures naturally fluctuate slightly from year to year.
However, in the past 10,000 years, there have been three relatively
long global cold spells. The Little Ice Age (LIA) is the most
recent and best documented, especially in Europe.
may have had a greater effect on history than its predecessors
because it immediately followed several centuries of unusually
warm temperatures. Between 800 and 1200, Europe basked in
a warm spell known as the "Medieval Warm Period" (MWP); temperatures
were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher than they are today. People
got used to the longer growing season and the new crops that
a warmer climate allowed for. In addition, more areas were
suitable for agriculture. Vineyards and farms flourished farther
north and at higher elevations than they do today. Calmer
sea conditions and reduced pack ice encouraged exploration
and allowed the Vikings to sail and settle in new areas such
as Iceland and Greenland.
took advantage of warmer temperatures during the MWP
to explore further afield
by the late 1300s, temperatures started to drop. People were
not quick to adapt to the changing weather with
the LIA, summers were wet and unusually cold and the growing
season was shortened. Widespread crop failure resulted in
famine that killed millions of people. To avoid starvation,
people would eat the planting seed for next season, which
created more of a shortage the following year.
the MWP European farmers primarily grew cereal grains such
as wheat, barley, and rye, which flourished. But the long
thin stalks of these crops made them vulnerable to the strong
winds and heavy rainfall that came during the LIA. The temperature
drop in northern Europe made it difficult to raise these grains
and many farmers gave up trying. Less grain was produced,
creating a severe shortage and raising prices.
that flourished during the medieval warm period struggled
during the LIA.
production in northern Europe also suffered. By 1310, those
vineyards that had expanded further north in England, France
and Germany during the warm period went out of production
due to the cooling climate.
of hay for livestock plummeted too. Temperature-sensitive
haygrass was often stunted or killed by the colder winters
of intense frosts and deep snow cover. The grounds stayed
frozen into late spring and the quick thaws often flooded
the ground, drowning the new grass. Many animals died from
starvation and disease.
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