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The Little Ice Age

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Thesis Statement

The occurrence of the Little Ice Age in Europe had greatly influenced the events in Europe that eventually led to an expanse, which influenced even the western worlds of today. The climatic change had provided profound effects on the world in various domains of social, economical, political and religious perspectives.

One of the most historically significant Holocene or a geological epoch environmental changes that occurred in the lands of Europe was the sudden climatic change known as the Little Ice Age. The Holocene events began in approximately 9600 B.C, and continuously divert in various forms of environmental variations, which still occur in the current generation. The Holocene events of the Little Ice Age in Europe had caused tremendous effects on the economies of highland and marginal areas in vast European states.

This event is known as the renewed phase of glacial progression since the medieval warm Holocene epoch. According to Goudie (1992), the phase of massive glaciation caused by the Little Ice Age was termed as the phase of neoglaciation, which encompass the interval of rebirth or renewed growth, and all subsequent fluctuation of glaciers after the time of maximum hypsithermal glacier shrinkage (167). The events of the Little Ice Age have created significant abrupt change not only in the environmental condition, but most especially the economic and social stability in Europe.

In this study, the primary aim is to determine the impact of environmental phenomena known as the Little Ice Age. The emphasis of the study is the effects of the abrupt climate change in the European territories that progressed to the western outskirts. Furthermore, the study emphasizes the climatic etiologies for the occurrence of this phenomenon.

The Historical Accounts of the Little Ice Age

The event of the Little Ice Age had brought significant change in the climates of Europe from warm conditions to intensively cooling events known as the medieval climate optimum (MCO). The concept of MCO involved the period of warm climate from the North Atlantic region that occurred until 10th century to 14th century. According to climatologists, the occurrence of MCO can be initiated by the intensive effect of global warming wherein substantial shifts in temperature occurs in the environment.

The events of MCO had been very much related to the occurrence of the Little Ice Age events since the main composition for its sudden cooling was actually due to temperature variations. According to Goudie (1992), the term Little Ice Age was first introduced by Mathes in 1939 in order to describe an epoch of renewed but moderate glaciation, which followed the warmest part of the Holocene (167).

The occurrence of the Little Ice Age did not only involve the Europe and the Western portions of North America, but it also occurred in some parts of the globe (e.g. 17th century’s Swiss Alps, River Thames and canals of Netherlands, etc.). Little Ice Age mainly occurred during the 16th century until the early years of the 19th century wherein it significantly manifested its climax by turning the whole European state into snow-filled country territory. However, according to Estreicher (2006), the occurrence of the Little Ice Age had also took place during the early 13th century , between the 1309 to 1315 wherein the last three years were dominated by non-stop pouring of rain and cold weathers (55).

During this point of cool-down, the Viking settlements in Greenland and Iceland had disappeared due to the continuous outpouring. Another climax of the Little Ice Age effect occurred during the 14th century wherein very cold winters resulted in widespread famine. As supported by Estreicher (2006), the historical accounts of the Little Ice Age occurrence existed in logbooks of ships, accounts of wine harvests, historical records, ice cores, etc; however, not all parts of the world could provide sufficient evident to validate the occurrence of the phenomenon aside from Europe. Most historical data from the age of Antiquity and Middle Ages depicted significant illustrations of the cold weather. In fact, even paintings of Hendrick Avercamp (1608), Heures du duc de Berry (1410), and most paintings of 1565 to 1665 had portrayed relevant accounts of the Little Ice Age in Europe.

The Causes of Little Ice Age

According the environmental theories proposed, there are actually two most probable causes of the Little ice Age, particularly the incidence of Maunder Minimum and volcanic activity. According to Ochoa, Hoffman and Tin (2006), the main cause of the Little Ice Age had not yet been determined; although, theories had been proposed in order to uncover the secret behind the incidents occurrence (78).

The most significant of these was the period of low solar activity, which was known in the history of climatic change as the Maunder Minimum. According to Cronin (1999), there was historical evidence of solar activity decline during the fourteenth to nineteenth century, which gave a certain link to the vastly occurring cool down phenomena during the same period (263). The theoretical etiologies of Little Ice Age provided significant frameworks for scientist to analyze how the condition progressed especially during the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries.

The first theory of Maunder Minimum was provided by the solar astronomer Edward W. Maunder and implicated it to the climatic events that occurred from 1645 to 1715, which was the date of intensive manifestations of Little Ice Age. The theory proposes the occurrences of low sunspot activity that caused the cooling of temperatures. According to Cowie (2007), during the 30-year period within the Maunder Minimum, astronomers observed only about 50 sunspots, as opposed to a more typical 40,000 to 50,000 spots (166). However, the connection of Maunder Minimum was still regarded as coincidental and only suggestive of linkage but not entirely viewed as the main cause. The discrepancy occurred within the context of determining the precise link between the decreased of sunspots and the cooling of temperatures.

On the other hand, the issues of volcanic activity were also considered as an etiology of Little Ice Age. During the 16th and 17th century, wide historical volcanic activity was noted in various places of globally. The increased incidence of volcanic eruptions was regarded as a probable cause of temperamental cooling since the release of ashes upon eruptions acted as a blanket underneath the atmosphere. According to Jacobson (2002), the eruption of volcano, such as the Tambora of Indonesia, had released an estimate of 1.7 million tons of ash and aerosol particles that traveled globally, cooling temperatures in North America and entire European territories (336). In addition, the release of sulfur from volcanic eruptions blocked the solar radiance and rays coming from the sun, which in turn deprived solar activity in warming the temperatures of the Earth.

Added by Cronin (1999), the interest in Little Ice Age climate history stemmed from the need to establish whether the twentieth century rise in temperatures was part of the climatic oscillation following Little Ice Age cooling or an anomalous warming caused by human activity (263). In addition, the focus on the discovering the cause of Little Ice Age in the climatic history of Europe had been emphasized during the start of twentieth century in aims of preventing further progression of the same phenomena.

The Effects of Little Ice Age in the Modern Europe

Most significantly, the events of the Little Ice Age was initially recognized in Northern Europe when climatologists obtained samples from alpine glacial remains for the purpose of analyzing the climatic influence in the environment during the periods of fourteen to fifteen century in European territories. As supported by the statements of Michaels (2005), the conclusions obtained proved that there had been increased storminess, colder temperatures and advance of alpine glaciers that began around 1450 and ending around 1850 B.C (60). The Little Ice Age experienced by Europe had tremendously affected the agricultural life, health, economics and social strife of the people, especially those in early 16th century to latter 17th century.

Some of the meteorological studies implemented in order to determine the state of climate during the 1400s to 1900s was through the paintings done by mostly European artists. Somehow, the events of Little Ice Age had contributed to the societal ideas of illustrating landscape arts in the most real-time portrayal possible. The Snowy winter scenes became immensely popular during the 16th and 17th century wherein the major climax of the environmental phenomena was most evident. The meteorologist of 1970s named Hans Neuberger from Pennsylvania State University had studied the different paintings dating 1400s and 1967s from approximately twelve thousand paintings send in different American and Europeans museums.

According to the book of MacDougall (2004), Neuberger’s findings were the common dark illustrations of skies from landscape paintings, and the overly emphasized cloudiness of paintings dated 16th to 17th century (225). The astronomical implications of these works of art somehow illustrate the physical characteristics of the European skies during the advent of Little Ice Age. The presence of dark and cloudy skies had been implicated to the actual contributions of volcanic activities in development of temperamental variations.

According to Tamara et.al. (2005), the effects of climate change had altered the costs and benefits of a particular climate to which a region adapted itself. English wine growers had to adopt new crops when the wine border moved south in late medieval times. Another was the people from the Alpine regions that had been faced with the advancing glaciers that destroyed their crops and buildings (77). The famine that struck the European lands and during the early 16th century, historical records had approximated 1.5 million deaths in Europe. However, the most significant effect it had caused was the destruction of agricultural sectors.

The crops, such as wheat, vegetables, etc, and even livestock commodities had experienced tremendous drop in production, which resulted the need to import these goods from other countries. However, due to the decreasing supply and the lack of proper transportation, the Europeans resorted to other alternatives, such as fishing, food preservation, etc, to satisfy their state of starvation.

Aside from the economical and societal impacts of the climatic change, Cowie (2007) had also considered political effects, specifically during the incident of military activities under France’s Ling Louis X in his attempt of warring the Count Robert of Flanders. The military force of king Louis X was strangled by the bogging of mud, the horses were unable to travel appropriately due to the cold winter and rough terrain, and the wagons of supplies were unable to travel appropriately due to faults of landscape. In fact, the book of Cowie (2007) had mentioned that people ate dogs and reports of cannibalism were common; graves were robbed and criminals cut down from gibbets for food (195).

Meanwhile, according to Cowie (2007), the increased glaciation that occurred during this time had devastating effect on those who lived near glaciers and the sea (194). The events of the Little Ice Age had significantly killed the economic fishing industry, since the waters were unavailable for fishing. In fact, historical documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (periods wherein the temperature increased intensively at its climax point) of cod fishery and sea-ice historical records had all indicate that the sea-temperature during that point is 3 to 5 degrees Celsius below the modern mean.

In addition, records of abnormal ice floes penetrations, and frequent instances of territorial windstorms had most prominently occurred in European coastline (Michaels 60). During the time of the Little Ice Age, the codfish industries played significant tradition to the Medieval Europeans. During the occurrence of Little Ice Age, cod was an essential resource of protein since the Catholic order denied the consumption of red meat on Fridays. Codfish was usually preserved through salt for a long time, which became the primary commodity in the market. However, codfish sources had declined tremendously with economic impacts in the commodity value due to the decrease of supply brought by the intensive cold climates.


The events caused by the Little Ice Age had mostly affected the society of 16th and 17th century across Europe and eventually moving in the western portions of the globe due to vast scarcity of resources. From the studies and historical contexts, two prominent theories had been proposed to explain the occurrence of the Little Ice Age, namely the frequent volcanic eruptions and the phenomena of Maunder Minimum. The impact of cold climate had reduced the supply of food, first in Europe then extending to western countries, which triggered vast effects of resource insufficiency.

Works Cited
Cowie, Jonathan. Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Cronin, Thomas M. Principles of Paleoclimatology. Columbia University Press, 1999.
Estreicher, Estefan K. Wine: From Neolithic Times to the 21st Century. Algora Publishing, 2006.
Goudie, Andrew. Environmental Change: Exploring Environmental Change. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Jacobson, Mark C. Atmospheric Pollution: History, Science, and Regulation. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
MacDougal, J D. Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages. University of California Press, 2004.
Michaels, Patrick J. Shattered Consensus: The True State of Global Warming. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
Ochoa, George, Jennifer Hoffman, and Tin Tina. Climate: The Force That Shapes Our World and the Future of Life on Earth. Rodale Publishing, 2006.
White et.al., Tamara L. Northern Europe: An Environmental History. ABC-CLIO Press, 2005.

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