The Little Ice Age

The Little Ice Age

“If
Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

Percy Bysshe
Shelley

The classic Neanderthals of 100,000 years ago were
the first humans to live under Arctic conditions. These early hunters had to
seek out a cave sanctuary for the winter, which often meant driving out the
cave bear, hyena, or an even larger, more uncooperative beast. Secure in a
cave, they lived out the harsh winter.

Large
pole holes at the entrance to several caves indicate that these early humans
must have draped poles with large skins to block the entrance. The center of
the cave was probably carpeted with warm furs surrounding a central fire. In
the evenings, as the wind howled outside, the tribe huddled together on the
mattress of furs, snug around a central fire. They remained warm and
comfortable throughout the night, with someone assigned to keep the fire going.
Artifacts left behind by the succeeding Cro—Magnon show humans clad in parkas
not unlike those of present—day Inuit.

A
popular misconception is that the entire globe was frigid during the last ice
age. The subtropics and tropics were far less severely affected than the land
to the north, but temperatures experienced in the subtropics were about 8
degrees Fahrenheit below the present average. The equatorial belt of rain
forests 18,000 years ago was probably just a little cooler than it is today.
Possibly many of the northern humans migrated south during the harsh winter
months.

The
most recent major ice age, preceded and followed by warmer times
(interglacials), began about 70,000 years ago. It reached a bitter extreme some
50,000 years later and then began a slow retreat. The retreat was short lived
because the glacial ice advanced again, bringing yet colder weather that
reached its climax about 18,000 years ago. During this latest ice age huge
sheets of ice, often 10,000 feet thick, covered much of the temperate and upper
latitudes around the globe. The woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, and other
fauna especially adapted to glacial climates were abundant. The ice began to
retreat about 15,000 years ago, slowly at first; then a little over 10,000
years before the present (b.p.), the melting phase
accelerated.

In
an extended warm period 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, average temperatures became
significantly higher than those at present. This undoubtedly resulted in a rise
of sea level and large—scale flooding of the land as some of the polar ice
melted. An interesting corollary to the rising waters on earth is the
appearance in the folklore of many ancient civilizations of a story of a vast
flooding such as the biblical flood of Noah. An analysis of several drill cores
taken from the Gulf of Mexico indicates a sudden surge in climate and a most
dramatic rise in sea level caused by disintegration of one of the polar ice caps
several thousand years ago. Paleoclimatologists speculate that the flooding of
low—lying coastal areas, many inhabited by humans, gave rise to the deluge
stories common to many traditions worldwide. Many North and South American
Indian tribes, the Hindu people of India, Babylonians, and Greeks, as well as the Hebrews,
are among the civilizations that included a story of a flood among their folk
legends.

Around
5,000 years b.p. the trend began to reverse, with
cooler temperatures prevailing worldwide. The polar ice stopped its melting
trend in a climatic phase that lasted, interspersed by many fluctuations, until
about a.d. 400.

The
years between a.d. 400 and 1200 were characterized by warmer temperatures
worldwide and fewer storms in the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. Spain was almost tropical; forests grew higher on the
mountains, and farms spread further up the hillsides. The warm conditions
invited colonization by such people as the Norsemen, and around a.d. 985 about
300 people with their livestock sailed from Iceland to Greenland. They went to the grassy shores that Eric the Red
had selected for them in an earlier voyage. Many generations lived in permanent
colonies and prospered in a pleasant, productive climate. The Greenland colonists and their European counterparts had regular trade and
communication for several centuries. Europe was their
only source of iron for tools and weapons and of wood for building ships.

By
about a.d. 1200 the balmy weather began to wane, and
the climate again started to cool. Slowly but surely the colonies in Greenland declined and eventually disappeared. Graves excavated by Danish
archaeologists in 1921 tell the story of the gradual demise of the Norse
colonies in Greenland. Much evidence was unearthed. The excellent preservation
of both wooden objects and clothing confirmed that the ground had been frozen
during most of the 500 to 800 years the bodies had been interred. The oldest
burials were the deepest, and successive graves were
more and more shallow as the permafrost zone crept nearer to the surface.

Clothing
of current European styles found in successive burials indicated that trade had
continued for many generations. In the 13th century the expanding drift ice in
the sea made the route too hazardous to navigate. Eventually the wood supply
became too scarce to be used for coffins, so the most recent graves contained
bodies merely wrapped in shrouds.

Any
Norse settlers who survived the rigors of the changing climate and isolation
almost certainly would have merged with the Inuit by the 16th century as they
followed the walrus and seal southward to less icy seas. Nevertheless their
colonies lasted almost 500 years. Compare this with settlements of our European
ancestors, whose first colony at Jamestown, in 1607, was established less than 400 years ago.

Although
the weather conditions fluctuated with a wide range of warmings and coolings, a
trend toward almost constant cooling was making itself felt by the year 1550.
It lasted until about 1850. This glacial epoch, now known as the “Little Ice
Age,” brought the greatest extensions of ice on land and sea since the ice age
of 18,000 years b.p. Valley glaciers grew appreciably, and in many mountains of the world, glaciers
re—formed where none had been since the close of the big ice age. People during
that cold period who studied old maps were amazed to see that, in places where
a glacier had lain for as long as anyone could remember,
mapmakers earlier than the 13th century had drawn farms, orchards, buildings,
and roads. Obviously the growing glacier had driven away the inhabitants,
ingesting structures and other cultural features, and in essence had taken over
the land.

Much
U.S. colonial history occurred during the Little Ice Age.
Colonists in New England endured winters far more severe than any of today.
(Temperature readings unfortunately are absent from early colonial weather
accounts because thermometers were new instruments and naturally in short
supply. A thermometer was used for the first time in America in 1717.) The winter of 1740—41 hit the American
colonies especially hard. Drifting snow closed roads in New England and the Middle Colonies; rivers, inland waterways,
and even saltwater channels froze over.

The
storm of January 1772 became known as the Washington and Jefferson Snowstorm.
George Washington watched it from his Mount Vernon home and recorded in his
diary that snow everywhere was up to the breast of a tall horse, and that
people were shut up for 10 or 12 days “by the deepest snow which I suppose the
oldest living ever remembers to have seen in this country.” At about the same
time Thomas Jefferson and his bride were returning in this storm from their
honeymoon. They had to abandon their carriage and ride horseback
over a mountain trail to reach his home at Monticello. Fortunately for the future United States, they made it!

Conditions
were unusually rough during the American Revolutionary War. The legendary
winter during which Washington's troops were bivouacked at Valley Forge was actually regarded by contemporary observers as
“notably mild.”

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning