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Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Little Ice Age

From an article at the New York Times:
During the 17th century, longer winters and cooler summers disrupted growing seasons and destroyed harvests across Europe. It was the coldest century in a period of glacial expansion that lasted from the early 14th century until the mid-19th century. The summer of 1641 was the third-coldest recorded over the past six centuries in Europe; the winter of 1641-42 was the coldest ever recorded in Scandinavia. The unusual cold that lasted from the 1620s until the 1690s included ice on both the Bosporus and the Baltic so thick that people could walk from one side to the other.

The deep cold in Europe and extreme weather events elsewhere resulted in a series of droughts, floods and harvest failures that led to forced migrations, wars and revolutions. The fatal synergy between human and natural disasters eradicated perhaps one-third of the human population.

... Earth scientists have discerned three factors at work globally during the 17th century: increased volcanic eruptions, twice as many El NiƱo episodes (unusually warm ocean conditions along the tropical west coast of South America), and the virtual disappearance of sunspots, reducing solar output to warm the Earth.

The 17th century saw a proliferation of wars, civil wars and rebellions and more cases of state breakdown around the globe than any previous or subsequent age. Just in the year 1648, rebellions paralyzed both Russia (the largest state in the world) and France (the most populous state in Europe); civil wars broke out in Ukraine, England and Scotland; and irate subjects in Istanbul (Europe’s largest city) strangled Sultan Ibrahim.

Climate alone did not cause all the catastrophes of the 17th century, but it exacerbated many of them. Outbreaks of disease, especially smallpox and plague, tended to be more common when harvests were poor or failed. ...

But the cold did take a more direct toll. Western Europe experienced the worst harvest of the century in 1648. Rioting broke out in Sicily, Stockholm and elsewhere when bread prices spiked. In the Alps, poor growing seasons became the norm in the 1640s, and records document the disappearance of fields, farmsteads and even whole villages as glaciers advanced to the farthest extent since the last Ice Age. One consequence of crop failures and food shortages stands out in French military records: Soldiers born in the second half of the 1600s were, on average, an inch shorter than those born after 1700, and those born in the famine years were noticeably shorter than the rest.

Few areas of the world survived the 17th century unscathed by extreme weather. In China, a combination of droughts and disastrous harvests, coupled with rising tax demands and cutbacks in government programs, unleashed a wave of banditry and chaos; starving Manchu clansmen from the north undertook a brutal conquest that lasted a generation. North America and West Africa both experienced famines and savage wars. In India, drought followed by floods killed over a million people in Gujarat between 1627 and 1630. In Japan, a mass rebellion broke out on the island of Kyushu following several poor harvests. Five years later, famine, followed by an unusually severe winter, killed perhaps 500,000 Japanese.

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