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Web Feature
Little Ice Age
by Edna Sun
3 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3
Winter Landscape with Skaters Near a Castle by Adriaen Van deVenne

'WinterLandscape with Skaters Near a Castle' by Adriaen Van de Venne.
Credit: Worcester Art Museum

February 15 , 2005 It 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.

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Global 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.

Temperature timeline
Temperature timeline
(Click to enlarge)

It 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.

Photo of Viking ship reproduction

Vikings took advantage of warmer temperatures during the MWP to explore further afield

However, by the late 1300s, temperatures started to drop. People were not quick to adapt to the changing weather with disastrous consequences.

Fatal Harvest

During 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.

During 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.

Photo of grain
Grains that flourished during the medieval warm period struggled during the LIA.
Credit: USDA

Wine 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.

Stocks 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. Next Page

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