Chances are that when you think of the Ice Age, your mind conjures up images of vast, snow-covered wastelands traversed by cavemen and wooly-mammoths. But, between the 13th and 19th centuries, the Little Ice Age and the General Crisis that subsequently ensued had an arguably far more profound effect on the development of human civilization. The loss of crops, livestock, and human life that resulted from the Little Ice Age are incalculable, but the devastation caused humanity to embrace new ways of life, new foods, and even saw the downfall of several governments. Nothing could have prepared Europe for the icy crucible it was to endure, but by the time it emerged, it was a completely different land.
The effects of this massive climate change event weren’t relegated to Europe. The United States, especially New England, saw a great deal of adverse effects from the cold. Snow-covered summers and population migrations became part of American life for a time. In addition, China saw its own revolution inspired by the adverse effects of a colder world. From canals in the Netherlands to red snow in Italy, the Little Ice Age was hardly little in its global effects.
Contributing to the Little Ice Age was the fact that the sun was going though a "Grand Solar Minimum," an event that did not take place again until February 2020. NASA scientists confirmed, however, that even as the sun endures another period of low solar energy, "there is no impending 'ice age'" to be concerned about.
It All Started With Volcanic Eruptions
Research suggests that this ice-age-inducing period of cooling was actually catalyzed by volcanic eruptions in tropical zones. During the eruptions, tiny particles called "aerosols" were spewed up into the atmosphere. Once they made it up that far, they just sort of hung there, reflecting solar radiation away from the surface of the Earth, which blocked the sun's rays from making it down to the surface. Because of this lack of solar warmth, the Earth cooled for a period of time. This caused new ice to form in the North Atlantic, which then also reflected the sun’s rays back into space along with keeping the surrounding water cold. This condition, known as the albedo effect, became self-perpetuating for some time; the combination of aerosols and increased ice led to the formation of even more ice, which led to the refraction of even more sunlight. This led to hundreds of years of a much colder climate.
It Mostly Affected Europe
While the entire planet became cooler between the 14th and 19th centuries, it was Europe that got hit the hardest, with London's River Thames and canals in the Netherlands (both usable waterways) completely frozen for centuries. At first, the Ice Age manifested as difficult and constantly changing weather, but when the temperature really plummeted, it led to droughts and famines across the continent. When resources became scarce and trade wasn’t enough to disseminate goods to those who needed them, wars broke out. Because Europe had so many factions within it, that meant a lot of battles.
- Photo: The Great Famine (1996) by William Chester Jordan. Original cover art courtesy of Stiftung Weimarer Klassik, Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
It Caused The Great Famine Of 1315, Which Established A Period Of Conflict
One of the first - and most destructive - symptoms of the Little Ice Age was the Great European Famine of 1315 to 1317. After terrible weather in 1315, crops died throughout Europe for the next two years. During those years, less food led to massive crime, horrible disease, and even cannibalism. Families were even forced to kill their own newborn children as they could not afford another mouth to feed. Even among the richest and best cared for in Europe, the life expectancy dropped by about five years.
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The Little Ice Age Allowed The Black Death To Happen
With disruptive weather and bone-chilling cold, it’s no wonder disease could spread easily throughout Europe. A recent study linked the Little Ice Age and the subsequent agricultural crisis it initiated to the spread of the Bubonic Plague. People’s immune systems were severely compromised, and dead bodies were common due to exposure and starvation. This created the perfect cocktail for bacterium to make its move. By the end of the epidemic five years later, more than 20 million people in Europe had died.
The Black Death Made The Ice Age Worse
While there were several environmental factors that led to the Little Ice Age becoming a self-perpetuating machine of ice and death, the demise of millions of Europeans may have had a hand in it, as well. Just before the Ice Age, there was most likely a rise in carbon dioxide due to massive deforestation, which would have contributed to a warmer climate. However, after tens of millions died during the Plague, reforestation occurred, and the carbon dioxide levels dropped, which allowed the temperature to drop with it.
The determinations were made by examining the number of pores of ancient oak trees. The more pores the trees developed, the lower the levels of CO2. The fewer pores, the more of the gas there was in the atmosphere.
It May Have Caused A Revolt In China
The colder climate led to famine and flooding in China during the 17th century. In turn, the harsh conditions and lack of resources for the peasant class created a great deal of trouble for the Ming Dynasty. Economic chaos was rampant, and morale in China worsened by the day. Starving to death and unable to work or pay taxes, the lower class revolted against the government and eventually overthrew their Imperial overseers. Manchurian invaders from the north saw an opportunity to seize power with the government in upheaval, so they crossed the Great Wall, allied themselves with the rebellion, and became the founders of the Qing Dynasty.