As we enter the 21st Century, many believe that major climate changes are imminent, and of those believers, a portion maintain that we have the wisdom and technology to steel against the worst aspects of changes in climate and long-term weather variations. That is, most of our current global civilization is much less vulnerable to large swings of weather and climate than humanity was at the start of the just-completed millennium.
[I must regress a moment to define a few terms. Short-term weather extremes are those weather events of a month or less that may be very destructive (e.g. Hurricanes Andrew or Mitch). Climate variations are changes in long-term weather conditions over periods of say, decades or longer. Long-term weather extremes are large variations of seasonal, annual, or even multi- annual conditions such as El Niño events.]
Unfortunately, few of us have been exposed to research linking a long historical record of weather and climate fluctuations with social and national histories to make a true judgement concerning our ability to cope with such fluctuations. Too many of us have been prejudiced by recent media and environmental group claims that recent extreme weather-related events have been unique in human history. Nothing could be further from the truth, and thanks to several recently released books such as The Little Ice Age by Brian M. Fagan, we are now able to see current conditions in a better historical perspective.
For me, Brian M. Fagan's The Little Ice Age leads that list of popular books relating history and climate. Fagan is an archeologist/historian whose many popular works have brought archeology to millions of readers. As such The Little Ice Age is not a scientific look at climate change (his brief attempt to describe the greenhouse effect continues the inaccuracy of the metaphor), and he breaks no new ground in the scientific search for recent (last few millennia) earth/climate history. However, he does smoothly weave the observational and proxy (obtained from agricultural records, ice cores, tree rings, etc.) seasonal and climate trend information of others into the historical record to show us the stress points that have altered the flow of history. Within this tapestry, he shows how climate change theories such as changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation and enormous volcanic eruptions such as Mount Tambora (causing the 1816, "Year without A Summer") fit the data and historical accounts of the day.
The Little Ice Age, for which the book is named, is generally considered as an exceptional cold period between approximately 1300 and 1850. It followed the Medieval Warm Period (900- 1300) that saw the Vikings discover and settle Iceland and Greenland and push into the northeastern American coastal region, and vineyards thrive across much of the British Isles and high up Alpine slopes. The Little Ice Age ends (circa 1850) with the present warming trend that began concurrent with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
During the Little Ice Age, Europe and many other parts of the world suffered extreme food crises which led to starvation, epidemics, large-scale migration, changes in agricultural practices and political unrest. Fisheries disappeared or changed. British and many continental European vineyards failed, not to return until the 20th Century. Millions died from famine caused not only by bad weather but by bad agricultural practices and weak social structures. Traditional crops failed and were replaced by newer cultivars such as the American potato. The period was a most stressful time that caused the fall of some institutions and practices and the rise of others more in tune with prevailing climatic conditions.
Historians have long shied away from links between social history and environmental factors such as weather/climate changes, perhaps because much of our definitive knowledge about these fluctuations has only come recently, the result of scientific investigation replacing or affirming anecdotal evidence. Without confirming data in other records, for example, diaries or other records which speak of atmospheric conditions often have the limited sight of a human lifetime and the exaggerated viewpoint of someone gravely affected. With hard data to back them up, convincing connections between social history and climate can be made.
Fagan has taken the recent explosion in proxy weather/climate data for the last millennium and scientific climate change theory to place it alongside the historical record of European society. Fagan states his purpose in writing this book thus:
"In The Little Ice Age I argue that the human relationships to the natural environment and short-term climate change have always been in a complex state of flux. To ignore them is to neglect one of the dynamic backdrops of the human experience. ...Environmental determinism may be intellectually bankrupt, but climate change is the ignored player on the historical stage."
He concludes the book with:
"The vicissitudes of the Little Ice Age reminds us of our vulnerability again and again. In a new climate era, we would be wise to learn from the climatic lessons of history."
I found Fagan's historical look at the influence of the swings of weather and climate of the Second Millennium an engaging and well-written account filled with timely examples and woven into a compelling argument that humanity was and likely still is very vulnerable to the vagaries of the atmosphere over longer time periods. We perhaps have been fortunate that advanced transportation systems have mitigated much of our concern over crop failures, but we should not become complacent that we are above danger. As the old saying goes, "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it." Brian Fagan has hopefully opened our eyes to the dangers of being too smug.
This is my first read of a book by Brian Fagan, but it will not be my last. His style makes history come alive and speak relevantly to me. If you are interested in either history or weather/climate, I strongly recommend The Little Ice Age. It should open your eyes to new connections between society and the world in which it functions. If you, like I, are interested in the historical and social aspects of weather and climate, The Little Ice Age is a must read.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
10 June 2001
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