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The Little Ice Age brought colder winters to parts of Europe and North America. Farms and villages in the Swiss Alps were destroyed by encroaching glaciers during the mid-17th century. Canals and rivers in Great Britain and the Netherlands were frequently frozen deeply enough to support ice skating and winter festivals. The first River Thames frost fair was in 1607; the last in 1814, although changes to the bridges and the addition of an embankment affected the river flow and depth, hence diminishing the possibility of freezes. The freeze of the Golden Horn and the southern section of the Bosphorus took place in 1622. In 1658, a Swedish army marched across the Great Belt to Denmark to invade Copenhagen. The Baltic Sea froze over, enabling sledge rides from Poland to Sweden, with seasonal inns built on the way. The winter of 1794-1795 was particularly harsh when the French invasion army under Pichegru could march on the frozen rivers of the Netherlands, while the Dutch fleet was fixed in the ice in Den Helder harbour. In the winter of 1780, New York Harbor froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island. Sea ice surrounding Iceland extended for miles in every direction, closing that island's harbors to shipping.
The severe winters affected human life in ways large and small. The population of Iceland fell by half but this was perhaps also due to fluorosis caused by the eruption of the volcano Laki in 1783. Iceland also suffered failures of cereal crops and people moved away from a grain-based diet. The Norse colonies in Greenland starved and vanished (by the 15th century) as crops failed and livestock could not be maintained through increasingly harsh winters, though Jared Diamond noted that they had exceeded the agricultural carrying capacity before then. In North America, American Indians formed leagues in response to food shortages. In Southern Europe, in Portugal, snow storms were much more frequent than today. There are reports of heavy snowfalls in the winters of 1665, 1744 and 1886.
In 1995, Herbert Lamb said that in many years, "snowfall was much heavier than recorded before or since, and the snow lay on the ground for many months longer than it does today." Many springs and summers were outstandingly cold and wet, although there was great variability between years and groups of years. Crop practices throughout Europe had to be altered to adapt to the shortened, less reliable growing season and there were many years of dearth and famine (such as the Great Famine of 1315–1317, although this may have been before the LIA proper). Viticulture disappeared from some northern regions. Violent storms caused massive flooding and loss of life. Some of these resulted in permanent losses of large tracts of land from the Danish, German and Dutch coasts.
The extent of mountain glaciers had been mapped by the late 19th century. In both the north and the south temperate zones, snowlines (the boundaries separating zones of net accumulation from those of net ablation) were about 100 m lower than they were in 1975. In Glacier National Park, the last episode of glacier advance came in the late 18th and early 19th century. In Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, large temperature excursions during the Little Ice Age (~1400–1900 AD) and the Medieval Warm Period (~800–1300 AD) were possibly related to changes in the strength of North Atlantic thermohaline circulation.
In Ethiopia and Mauritania, permanent snow was reported on mountain peaks at levels where it does not occur today. Timbuktu, an important city on the trans-Saharan caravan route, was flooded at least 13 times by the Niger River; there are no records of similar flooding before or since. In China, warm weather crops such as oranges, were abandoned in Jiangxi Province, where they had been grown for centuries. Also, two periods of most frequent typhoon strikes in Guangdong coincide with two of the coldest and driest periods in northern and central China (AD 1660-1680, 1850–1880). In North America, the early European settlers also reported exceptionally severe winters. For example, in 1607-1608 ice persisted on Lake Superior until June. The journal of Pierre de Troyes Chevalier de Troyes, who led an expedition to James Bay in 1686, recorded that James Bay was still littered with so much floating ice that he could hide behind it in his canoe on July 1.
Antonio Stradivari, the famous violin maker, produced his instruments during the Little Ice Age. It has been proposed that the colder climate caused the wood used in his violins to be denser than in warmer periods, contributing to the tone of Stradivari's instruments.
The Little Ice Age by anthropology professor Brian Fagan of the University of California at Santa Barbara, tells of the plight of European peasants during the 1300 to 1850 chill: famines, hypothermia, bread riots, and the rise of despotic leaders brutalizing an increasingly dispirited peasantry. In the late 17th century, writes Fagan, agriculture had dropped off so dramatically that "Alpine villagers lived on bread made from ground nutshells mixed with barley and oat flour." Finland lost perhaps a third of its population to starvation and disease. Historian Wolfgang Behringer has linked intensive witch-hunting episodes in Europe to agricultural failures during the Little Ice Age.
Burroughs (Weather, 1981) analyses the depiction of winter in paintings, as does Hans Neuberger. Burroughs asserts that this occurred almost entirely from 1565 to 1665, and was associated with the climatic decline from 1550 onwards. Before this there were almost no depictions of winter in art and he hypothesizes that the unusually harsh winter of 1565 inspired great artists to depict highly original images, and the decline in such paintings was a combination of the "theme" having been fully explored, and mild winters interrupting the flow of painting.
The famous winter paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (e.g. Hunters in the Snow) all appear to have been painted in 1565. Snow also dominates many village-scapes by the Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who lived from 1564 to 1638. Burroughs states that Pieter Brueghel the Younger "slavishly copied his father's designs. The derivative nature of so much of this work makes it difficult to draw any definite conclusions about the influence of the winters between 1570 and 1600..."
Dutch painting of the theme appears to begin with Hendrick Avercamp after the winter of 1608. There is then an interruption of the theme between 1627 and 1640, with a sudden return thereafter; this hints at a milder interlude in the 1630s. The 1640s to the 1660s cover the major period of Dutch winter painting, which fits with the known proportion of cold winters then. The final decline in winter painting, around 1660, does not coincide with an amelioration of the climate; Burroughs therefore cautions against trying to read too much into artistic output, since fashion plays a part. He notes that winter painting recurs around the 1780s and 1810s, which again marked a colder period.
Neuberger analyzed 12,000 paintings, held in American and European museums and dated between 1400 and 1967, for cloudiness and darkness. His 1970 publication shows an increase in such depictions that corresponds to the LIA, peaking between 1600 and 1649.
Paintings and contemporary records in Scotland demonstrate that curling and skating were popular outdoor winter sports, with curling dating back to the 16th century and becoming widely popular in the mid 19th century. As an example, an outdoor curling pond constructed in Gourock in the 1860s remained in use for almost a century, but increasing use of indoor facilities, problems of vandalism, and milder winters led to the pond being abandoned in 1963.
Scientists have tentatively identified these possible causes of the Little Ice Age: decreased solar activity, increased volcanic activity, altered ocean current flows, the inherent variability of global climate, and reforestation following decreases in the human population.
During the period 1645–1715, in the middle of the Little Ice Age, there was a period of low solar activity known as the Maunder Minimum. There is a still very poor understanding of the correlation between low sunspot activity and cooling temperatures. The Spörer Minimum has also been identified with a significant cooling period between 1460 and 1550. Other indicators of low solar activity during this period are levels of the isotopes carbon-14 and beryllium-10.
Throughout the Little Ice Age, the world also experienced heightened volcanic activity. When a volcano erupts, its ash reaches high into the atmosphere and can spread to cover the whole Earth. This ash cloud blocks out some of the incoming solar radiation, leading to worldwide cooling that can last up to two years after an eruption. Also emitted by eruptions is sulfur in the form of SO2 gas. When this gas reaches the stratosphere, it turns into sulfuric acid particles, which reflect the sun's rays, further reducing the amount of radiation reaching Earth's surface. The 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia blanketed the atmosphere with ash; the following year, 1816, came to be known as the Year Without a Summer, when frost and snow were reported in June and July in both New England and Northern Europe. Other volcanoes that erupted during the era and may have contributed to the cooling include Billy Mitchell (ca. 1580 ± 20 ), Mount Parker (1641), Long Island (Papua New Guinea) (ca. 1660), and Huaynaputina (1600).
Another possibility is that there was a slowing of thermohaline circulation. The circulation could have been interrupted by the introduction of a large amount of fresh water to the North Atlantic, possibly caused by a period of warming before the Little Ice Age known as the Medieval Warm Period. There is some concern that shutdown of thermohaline circulation could happen again as a result of the present warming period.
Some reseachers have proposed that human influences on climate began earlier than is normally supposed and that major population declines in Eurasia and the Americas reduced this impact, leading to a cooling trend. William Ruddiman has proposed that somewhat reduced populations of Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East during and after the Black Death caused a decrease in agricultural activity. He suggests reforestation took place, allowing more carbon dioxide uptake from the atmosphere, which may have been a factor in the cooling noted during the Little Ice Age. Ruddiman further hypothesizes that a reduced population in the Americas after European contact in the early 16th century could have had similar effect. A 2008 study of sediment cores and soil samples further suggests that carbon-dioxide uptake via reforestation in the Americas could have contributed to the Little Ice Age. Faust, Gnecco, Mannstein and Stamm (2005) supported depopulation in the Americas as a factor, asserting that humans had cleared considerable amounts of forests to support agriculture in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans brought on a population collapse. The authors link the subsequent depopulation to a drop in carbon dioxide levels observed at Law Dome, Antarctica. This hypothesis has not gained widespread scientific support.
Spontaneous fluctuations in global climate might explain past variability. However, it is very difficult to know what the true level of variability from only internal causes might be, since other forcings, as noted above, exist; and their magnitude may not be known either. One approach to evaluating internal variability is to use long integrations of coupled ocean-atmosphere global climate models. These have the advantage that the external forcing is known to be zero; but the disadvantage that they may not fully reflect reality. These variations may result from chaos-driven changes in the oceans, the atmosphere, or interactions between the two. Two studies have concluded that the demonstrated inherent variability is not great enough to account for the Little Ice Age.[72