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CONNECTIONS: The unspeakable climate

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By Tuesday, Mar 5, 2019 Viewpoints 5

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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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Diego Gutierrez says:

    You are completely confusing the terms “weather” and “climate”…and thereby undermine your cheeky argument. Weather is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere, and its short-term variation in minutes to weeks. Generally weather is the combination of temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, visibility, and wind, and how it changes in terms of the near future: “How hot is it right now?” “What will it be like today?” and “Will we get a snowstorm this week?” That’s weather.

    Climate is the weather of a place averaged over a period of time, often 30 years. Climate information includes the statistical weather information that tells us about the normal weather, as well as the range of weather extremes for a location.

    Climate change is talked about in terms of years, decades, and centuries. Scientists study climate to look for trends or cycles of variability, such as the changes in wind patterns, ocean surface temperatures and precipitation over the equatorial Pacific that result in El Niño and La Niña, and also to place cycles or other phenomena into the bigger picture of possible longer term or more permanent climate changes.
    It’s this scientific data gathered over the last couple of centuries, as well as verifiable and indisputable data gathered from ice cores and other quantifiable sources dating back thousands of years that unambiguously point to a rapid change in the earth’s CLIMATE… for the worse! Far from Unspeakable, this is the most pressing issue of our time and deserves to be talked about, now!

  2. Louisa Dugan says:

    Thank you Diego. The distinction between weather and climate is indisputable. It is frightening how denying the reality of our dire circumstance with worsening climate will become a certainty to our very demise on this planet. Help!

  3. Charles Flynn says:

    Owens article caught my eye and I thought maybe it would be a good read about New England winters. Unfortunately as I continued to read, I found it becoming a disjointed cacophony of falsehoods, incorrect statements and associations, and outright politics of climate and weather that has become more of an ideology than real science. Please see the article linked here, http://www.meteo.psu.edu/holocene/public_html/shared/articles/littleiceage.pdf. The article was written by a real scientist and is well referenced. It continuously cites real research/scientific papers to support its arguments. The earth is 4.5 +or- billion years old. One constant throughout the history of the earth is climate change. In most cases gradual, however some were catastrophic due to major natural events and impacted life on earth. There is ample geologic evidence of these events and still much scientific theory and conjecture. Let’s stop listening to the historians, politicians, journalists, and Hollywood and get back to some real science.

    1. Tom Blauvelt says:

      Mr. Flynn,
      According to NASA the evidence for climate change is overwhelming. For example:
       Rise in global temperature – most of the warming taking place over the last 35 years
       Warming oceans – the average temperature has increased since 1969
       Shrinking ice sheets – the rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade
       Glacial retreat
       Decreased snow cover
       Rise in sea levels
       Loss of artic sea ice
       Extreme weather events
       Ocean acidification has increased by almost 30%

      If you chose not to believe NASA the following scientific and academic organizations have stated that climate change is the result of human activity.
       American Association for the Advancement of Science
       American Chemical Society
       American Geophysical Union
       American Medical Association
       American Meteorological Society
       American Physical Society
       The Geological Society of America
       U.S. National Academy of Sciences
       U.S. Global Change Research Program
       Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
      And lastly, over 200 worldwide scientific organizations have identified that climate change is real and caused by human action with the massive buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere over the past 50 years.
      Climate change is real.

      1. Charles Flynn says:

        Tom,
        Anyone can offer lists of societies. How about taking the time to reference professional papers that reflect real research like I did. When you deal with science especially a topic such as climate change, you offer real research from real scientists. Climate change has been happening on earth for over 4.5 Billion years so I have no argument that climate change is real. It is very well documented in the geologic record. However, for me it is science and not ideology. There is a big difference.

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