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Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Breughel. Breughel captured the long winters of the Little Ice Age in this 1565 painting.
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Caspar Ammann

The Little Ice Age

The Little Ice Age was a time of cooler climate in most parts of the world. Although there is some disagreement about exactly when the Little Ice Age started, records suggest that temperatures began cooling around 1250 A.D. The coldest time was during the 16th and 17th Centuries. By 1850 the climate began to warm.

Most of the documents that record information about the Little Ice Age come from Northern Europe. The cooling was caused by a combination of decreased solar activity and numerous large volcanic eruptions. Cooling caused glaciers to advance and stunted tree growth. Livestock died, harvests failed, and humans suffered increased famine and disease.

During the Little Ice Age, average global temperatures were 1-1.5 degree Celsius (2-3 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than they are today. The Little Ice Age was not a true ice age because it did not get cold enough for long enough to cause ice sheets to grow larger. Winter temperatures may have been more affected than summer temperatures. The cooling likely affected areas around the world but we have the most records of how it changed daily life from Europe. We know that Southern Africa and Antarctic Peninsula were relatively warm during this time.

What people observed:

  • Fur trappers reported that southern Hudson Bay remained frozen for about 3 weeks longer each spring.
  • Fishermen reported large amounts of sea ice in the North Atlantic.
  • British people saw Eskimos paddling canoes off the coast of England.
  • Poor crop yields and livestock losses led to famine in areas of Europe.

Natural records of change:

  • Alpine (mountain) glaciers grew larger worldwide. In some cases, there are reports that the glacial ice engulfed mountain villages.
  • Tree ring data from high latitudes shows that trees grew minimally during the cold centuries indicating short growing seasons.
  • Cherry tree flowering records shows that the date of spring flowering was later in the year indicating longer winters.

Effects on people:

  • Wet weather caused disease that affected people, animals and crops including the bubonic plague (also called the Black Death), which killed more than a third of Europeans.
  • Farms and villages in Northern Europe were deserted as crops yielded less food. During the harshest winters bread had to be made from the bark of trees because grains would no longer grow.
  • Famine in northern and Eastern Europe.
  • Storms and coastal floods in Europe
  • Harvests and health in England

Last modified June 20, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.

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The Summer 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist, available in our online store, includes articles on rivers and snow, classroom planetariums, satellites and oceanography, hands-on astronomy, and global warming.

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