By Paul Homewood

I reviewed this book a few years ago, but it is worth running again:

As the name suggests, this concentrates on the period when the Little Ice Age was at arguably its nadir, the 17thC, and describes how it affected not just Europe, but many other parts of the world.

Amazon’s blurb sets the scene: 

Revolutions, droughts, famines, invasions, wars, regicides – the calamities of the mid-seventeenth century were not only unprecedented, they were agonisingly widespread.  A global crisis extended from England to Japan, and from the Russian Empire to sub-Saharan Africa. North and South America, too, suffered turbulence. The distinguished historian Geoffrey Parker examines first-hand accounts of men and women throughout the world describing what they saw and suffered during a sequence of political, economic and social crises that stretched from 1618 to the 1680s. Parker also deploys scientific evidence concerning climate conditions of the period, and his use of ‘natural’ as well as ‘human’ archives transforms our understanding of the World Crisis. Changes in the prevailing weather patterns during the 1640s and 1650s – longer and harsher winters, and cooler and wetter summers – disrupted growing seasons, causing dearth, malnutrition, and disease, along with more deaths and fewer births. Some contemporaries estimated that one-third of the world died, and much of the surviving historical evidence supports their pessimism.

Amongst these catastrophic events, Parker lists:  

Early 17thC

1) West Africa, from the Sahel in the north to Angola in the south, suffered a prolonged drought between 1614 and 1619.

2) Catalonia suffered “the year of the flood” in 1617.

3) All Europe experienced an unusually cold winter in 1620/21, when many rivers froze so hard for 3 months that they could bear the weight of loaded carts; even the Bosphorus froze, an unheard of event.

4) Japan suffered its coldest spring of the century in 1616, while the sub tropical region of Fujian in China had heavy snowfall two years later, another extremely rare event.

5) Droughts in five years out of six between 1616 and 1621 almost the destroyed the new colonies in Virginia.

6) After a few better years, the summer of 1627 in Europe was the wettest for 500 years, followed by the “year without a summer” in 1628, when it was so cold that many crops never ripened.

7) Between 1629 and 1632, much of Europe suffered excessive rains, followed by drought.

8) Conversely, northern India suffered a “perfect drought” in 1630/31, followed the next year by catastrophic floods.

Parker notes that “all of these regions experienced dramatic falls in population

1640’s

9) After some better weather in the 1630’s came three of the coldest summers experienced in the northern hemisphere. The cold affected both west and east coasts of America, while both the Canadian Rockies and Mexico suffered severe and prolonged drought.

10) Abnormal droughts also affected the other side of the Pacific. Java, for instance, experienced the longest drought recorded during the last four centuries between 1643 and 1671. The drought also extended to the Philippines and nothern China, while Japan had a run of long winters.

11) Back in Europe, disastrous droughts hit Catalonia, Egypt and Anatolia. The Nile , for instance, dropped to the lowest level ever recorded in 1641.

12) In contrast, Istanbul was hit by bad floods in the same year, when Macedonia also suffered so much rain and snow during the autumn that “many workers died through the great cold”.

13) Early in 1642, Seville was flooded, in the middle of the wettest period ever recorded in Andalusia, between 1640 and 1643.

14) Much of northern Europe suffered uncommonly cold and wet weather, during this same period in the early 1640’s, including England, Ireland, France, Hungary, the Low Countries, Germany and Alpine regions, where glaciers advanced to their furthest extent in historical times.

15) Further afield, South America did not escape the effects, with major droughts in Chile, and significantly colder weather in Patagonia during the 1640’s.

16) As had happened three decades earlier, much of West Africa suffered severe, prolonged droughts in the 1640’s.

17) After a series of poor harvests in the 1630’s, in Japan 500,000 died during the “winter of unusual severity” of 1642/43.

18) The decade ended with another bout of extreme weather around the globe. In Britain and Ireland, an “unheard of “ wet summer, which destroyed the harvest, was followed by the Thames freezing over.

19) Other parts of NW Europe also suffered unusual precipitation that year. In the German town of Fulde, 226 days of rain or snow were recorded, followed by “six months of winter”. While appalling weather in France delayed the grape harvest in 1648, 1649 and 1650, drove bread prices to the highest levels in a century , and covered central Paris in floods for much of the spring in 1649.

20) Across in China, the winter of 1649/50 seems to have been the coldest on record.

1650’s

The 1650’s brought no respite.

21) In the Dutch republic, so much snow fell in early 1651 that the state funeral of William II had to be postponed, and then the combination of snowmelt and a storm tide caused the worst flooding for 80 years.

22) Catastrophic flooding also affected the Seine and Vistula, while, conversely, the longest recorded drought occurred in the southern France regions of Languedoc and Roussillon, 360 days without rain.

23) The “landmark winter of 1657/58” was said to be the severest in memory in England, but also affected other parts of the northern hemisphere, from Massachusetts, where the bay froze over, to the Netherland, Germany and Austria. This was the winter when the Swedish army, with artillery, marched 20 miles across the Danish Sound from Jutland to Copenhagen.

Concentrations of extreme events

24) Parker makes the point that the 17thC not only saw extreme climatic events, but also unusual concentrations of them. For instance, of 62 recorded floods of the Seine in and around Paris, 18 occurred in the 17thC. In England (and probably elsewhere in NW Europe), “bad weather ruined the harvests for five years from 1646, and again between 1657 and 1661”.

The Aegean and Black Sea regions suffered “the worst drought of the last millennium in 1659

1660’s and after

25) In 1675, much of the northern hemisphere experienced a “year without a summer” (again!). The Thames regularly froze over during the 1660’s and 70’s culminating in the winter of 1683/84, when a street was built across, with booths and thousands of people walking over.

26) Poland experienced frost on several summer days in 1664, 1666 and 1667. Further south in Moldavia, in the summer of 1670, “terrible floods, frequent showers and heavy rainfall raged for three months on end, destroying all types of crop”

27) In 1686, a military engineer in Romania described how “for three years now I have not seen a single drop of rain”.

28) In Russia, tree ring, pollen and peat bog data show that springs, autumns and winters from 1650-80 were some of the coldest on record. During the same period, the winters in the Yangsze and Yellow rivers of China are said to be “the coldest spell recorded in the last two millennia”.

29) In the 1670’s it was so cold in Egypt that people had to start wearing furs.

30) Droughts had gone so long in the Sahel that Lake Chad fell to its lowest ever recorded level in the 1680’s.

Perhaps this century can best be summed up by what Parker has to to say about population changes.

I think we can draw certain things from this analysis by Geoffrey Parker:

1) Both in the severity of the cold and the climatic effects, the Little Ice Age was a truly global phenomenon, contrary to what is sometimes claimed.

2) The century was noteworthy for the concentration and severity of extreme weather.  

3) Climatic effects, such as droughts in Africa and India, are consistent with theories developed by many 20thC climatologists such as HH Lamb, but also others. These state that as cold air spreads down from the Poles, the weather belts are squeezed towards the Equator, resulting in wetter tropics, desert belts moving Equator ward, monsoon failures in India, as well as wetter weather in temperature latitudes.

4) The wealth of evidence pulled together by Parker confirms much of what both Lamb and Brian Fagan have said about events in the Little Ice Age.

For some reason, so much of what happened during the Little Ice Age seems to have been conveniently forgotten by many of today’s climate scientists, who would like us to believe it never really existed. Meanwhile, there are many who seem to want to  return to the climate of those days.

You cannot make any global generalisations, but can anybody seriously suggest that the climate of the 17thC was in any way better than today’s?

Given the unusual plunge in temperatures, not only during the 17thC, but also from the end of the MWP, as early as the 13thC, can there really be any surprise that temperatures have somewhat recovered since?  

Geoffrey Parker’s book can be bought here.

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April 9, 2021 at 08:39AM