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CONNECTIONS: The unspeakable climate

It is interesting to contemplate that weather is blamed for the demise of the Vikings, the French Revolution and the bubonic plague. It is also interesting that the founding of this country, the creation of our Constitution, the Civil War, American industrialization and our Gilded Age all happened against a backdrop of extreme cold and global climate change.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Remember when a prudent parent would instruct, “In polite society, do not discuss religion or politics. Weather is a safe topic.”

No more. The weather, global climate change, is now a polarizing subject; the sides are drawn. Last week a western governor announced his run for the presidency on a single issue of the utmost importance: yup, weather. So, now weather is off limits. Unless…

Once there was a “Little Ice Age.” It extended from the 16th through the 19th century or from the 14th to the early 20th century. It was caused by European industrialization and the resulting soot, cyclical lows in solar radiation, heightened volcanic activity, variations in ocean circulation, the Earth’s orbit or tilt, the colonization of America—any, all, or none of the above.

‘Winter Scene in New England’ by George Henry Durrie. Image courtesy the Clarion Review

The exact time span and the exact cause are subjects for discussion and debate. However, it is interesting to contemplate that weather is blamed for the demise of the Vikings, the French Revolution and the bubonic plague. It is also interesting that the founding of this country, the creation of our Constitution, the Civil War, American industrialization and our Gilded Age all happened against a backdrop of extreme cold and global climate change.

All over the world

Weather was an issue. Not only was it colder for longer, not only did rivers freeze, but glaciers increased over a larger land mass and packed ice advanced southward. Ice encroached on previously inhabited areas. Brrrrrrrrr.

The cold and ice impacted the growing season; crops suffered, and famine spread. In turn, the cold and famine caused plague and the demise of whole civilizations. And yet the areas in Europe and America where populations survived, culture thrived.

At the same time, violence erupted against whatever population was blamed for the cold and its consequences. Where magic was considered the cause of extreme weather, witches—poor older women and widows—were scapegoated. If Jews and other small, marginalized populations were blamed for the weather or the resulting famine and disease, they were brutalized. Finally, some religious groups proclaimed bad weather was a sign of God’s displeasure with mankind and blamed everyone. Laws and punishments were put in place to prohibit or moderate pleasurable human activities and control drinking, dancing, play-acting, music and sex.

In America

The first white men to set foot on the North American continent wrote of the severe winters. In the 1600s, even the Great Lakes were frozen in parts. As far south as Jamestown, settlers died from the cold. New York harbor froze and people walked to Staten Island.

“The modern forests of today are almost unrecognizable compared to the majestic, dense and dark foggy woodlands that greeted the first white settlers … [yet] the most notable change to the American continent has far more to do with the weather than anything else.” (“The Little Ice Age during Early Colonial America,” Appalachian Magazine, 2017.)

‘Frozen River’ by Hendrick Avercamp. Image courtesy smithsonian.org

In New England

In 1717, there was a snowstorm so severe that houses were buried, and search parties were organized to find people buried alive. In 1810, in a single day. temperatures plummeted 60 degrees. The cold snap was so sudden and severe that people died in their homes. Henry David Thoreau’s mother said, as dishes were washed, they froze instantly.

According to the New England Historical Society, the Little Ice Age “had a huge impact on the development of New England in six ways”:

  1. The weather had an effect on the progress of the Revolutionary War; remember General Washington at Valley Forge.
  2. Extremely harsh winters destroyed the first colony in Maine, slowing immigration for a decade.
  3. New England was described as “a cold, barren, mountainous, rocky desert.” Such descriptions discouraged French colonization. “Had the weather not been so severe, New England might be New France today.”
  4. The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 flattened “all the corn to the ground, which never rose more.” Colonists in Connecticut seized Indian corn, the Pequot counterattacked and it escalated into the Pequot War.
  5. Cold weather in 1671 severely reduced crop yield. The colonists demanded Metacomet, or King Philip, surrender more and more land. He did, but also forged alliances with other tribes and built forts to launch an attack in 1675. The unusually cold winter of 1675–76 caused the swamps that usually protected the Narragansett fort to freeze, and that allowed Benjamin Church and his men to massacre the inhabitants and defeat them. So many were killed on both sides that “New England did not recover for a century.”
  6. 1816 was called “the year without a summer.” “A persistent dry fog” reddened and dimmed the sun. On May 12, 1816, frost covered the ground. On June 6, 1816, there was snow in Albany. Nicholas Bennet in New Lebanon, New York, wrote “all was froze … and the hills were barren like winter.” Hundreds and then thousands of New England families gave up their farms and headed west. Between 1810 and 1820, Massachusetts gained only 50,000 people while Ohio gained 250,000. The Massachusetts Legislature tried to hold on to its citizens by passing a homestead act that gave settlers 100 acres of land for $5. Weather defeated the attempt.

Today, experts agree the year without summer was caused by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. Good to know, but what caused the Little Ice Age? What caused its end? Whatever the reason, phew, it is safe to talk about the weather again—at least, weather in the past.

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