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Impact of Latest Little Ice Age on Human Population

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  • William Lee

Nowadays, the presence of Ice Ages which refer to the periodic long-term reduction in temperature of Earth’s surface and atmosphere, is well-known among people. However, most of them never heard of how another kind of geographical phenomenon, Little Ice Age (LIA), occurring from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, influenced our culture, technology and our world today. Can you imagine how our lifestyle would be influenced? Can you imagine how the world would be totally different if it had never suffered from the LIA? This essay will discuss about what the LIA brought to our ancient ancestors and how it affected the world today.

Let’s see what is meant by LIA. Distinct from the ice age, which refers to the long-term alternations between glacial periods and interglacial periods lasting for millions of years, the little ice age is another geographical terminology used to describe a pre-modern time period starting roughly from the 14th century, lasting until 19th century. During the LIA, the Earth was chilled by a sudden cooling and the average temperature of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere decreased by 2 degree centigrade than before.

This enormous change was usually considered as the effect of solar activity variation (Lesley M. Smith,1997) and the relative position of Earth while rotating around the sun (John A. Eddy,1976). Some new researches also suggest other causes for the LIA, such as increased volcanic activity (Jonathan Cowie, 2007), or altered ocean current flows (Broecker WS, 2000).

Due to the relatively higher latitude of land in the north hemisphere, the LIA had a predominant influence on the Eurasia continent rather than others. Meanwhile, most of human civilizations were gathering on the Old Continent. Reasonably the unexpected visit of this drastic change on climate affected human activities in such a complex way that is not easy to tell. However, we do can find some clues and records remained in the history, which can help us figure out the complicated process of change gradually.

In order to analysis the impact of the LIA easily, we can try to make a clear image of human cultures by summarizing the status of every civilizations including empires, realms, kingdoms and independent regions existing during this period.

At the beginning of 14th century, the Mongol Horde just invaded European countries and at the same time, China in the eastern world had been, for the first time, under foreign rule of Mongolian for already several decades. The Hundred Year’s War was just about to start and Italy was leading Europe to step into the period of Renaissance. A new dynasty called Ming arose after Chinese people stood up to fight against the cruel foreign rulers and in the next three hundred years, the prolonged war fire on the land of China finally came into a short time of peace. In fact, a storm was approaching silently, like the volcano hidden under the sea, it would erupt at any moment…Black Death killed a third of population in Europe. Russian and Norse begun to explore new lands…

In the fifteenth century, as Constantinople, the pivot on the way to the East, fell to the emerging Ottoman Turks, Western Europeans had to find a new trade route. The forthcoming Age of Sail allows Spanish and Portuguese explorers led to the first European sightings of the New Land (America and other virgin islands) and the sea passage along Cape of Good Hope to India.

Then in the sixteenth century, thanks to the Queen Victoria, Britain became a super power on which” the sun never set”, and began to expand its territory all over the world. The Era of Colonization came with spread of culture, disease, thoughts, technology…

A peak of chilling little ice age came in the beginning of seventeenth century. The production of crops kept in a low level due to the persistent low temperature. Ming Dynasty collapsed under a series of peasants uprisings.

Revolutions for independence or freedom of thought dominated the eighteenth century. And then Industrial Revolution accelerated the world into thrive.

Now we have already got a rough image about the corresponding history. But still, how is these historical events linked with the LIA?

Here is an example illustrating the LIA’s impact on agricultures.

Since the beginning of fourteenth century, the cold weather and heavy storms swept Europe. Crops and livestock were enormously destroyed. Crises arose as political struggles and class warfare weakened those previously prosperous countries. Millions of people starved to death. Cannibalism was even recorded during the Great Famine, which lasted for at least a decade. According to Lamb (1966)’s report, the growing season varied by 15% to 20% between the warmest and coldest times of the millennium. This is fairly enough to adversely influence any type of food production. Without modern technology, such as protection of warm house, seeds especially those highly adapted to warm conditions, could hardly survive this change. In order to adapt increasingly unpredictable climates, farmers begun to experiment with new agricultural techniques and equipment (J. Cohen, 2012). This led to the Agriculture Revolution in Europe.

In addition, the LIA also caused significant effect on economy, especially in Europe. Because of the Great Famine, heavy storms and growing glaciers, a large area of farmland was destroyed, which led to decreased tax revenue collected (Lamb,1995). Maritime activities were also limited by expanding glaciers, which caused a huge impact to the fishery and oversea trading (Lamb,1995).Miners lost their jobs due to the advancing glaciers as well. (Bryson, 1977.)

However, not all of those influences were bad. One of the four greatest fisheries in the world, the fishery along the Newfoundland coast, was founded by fishermen who were looking for new fish stocks in result of the movement of colder water (Lamb, 1995).

The LIA also brought great politic change to both western and oriental world.

In China, the LIA made most of the participation shift towards south. This caused frequent droughts all over the provinces of China. The most severe one of them lasted for at least seventy years. Along with several massive earthquakes happening at the same time, this huge but declining agricultural country was finally defeated by corrupted bureaucracy and the Manchurian invaders from the northeast, who took advantage of the power vacuum and crossed the Great Wall, later on established the Qing Dynasty (Kezhen Zhu, 1972)

In west Europe, “as the 18th century drew to a close, two decades of poor cereal harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor in France.” (J. Cohen, 2012) Many people who managed to express their disaffection yet failed eventually decided to rise up and fight the government which imposed heavy taxes. Therefore, the brewing storm broke in 1789, while the French Revolution incurred. Many historians believe that that was somehow connected to the LIA.

Although a large amount of evidences indicate that the LIA actually influenced ancient civilizations in various ways, there are still arguments disapproving this opinion.

The theory which explains human history as an outcome of effects from geographical factors, or “human habits and characteristics of a particular culture are shaped by geographical conditions” as the dictionary explains, is called geographical determinism. Criticisms point out that the theory exaggerates the effect of natural environment on the development of human society. It is obviously incorrect to substitute natural law for social law. The geographical environment is one of necessary external conditions for human society to develop, admittedly, it affects considerably society as well. Nevertheless, it is absolutely not the determinant of development of human society. In fact, its effect may decrease as the human society goes forward.

Other criticisms focus on the explanation that historical events are considered as inevitable trend or irresistible outcome of some natural factors. For example, they think that it’s unreasonable to impute the collapse of Ming Dynasty of China to the little ice age alone. The corrosion of government and bureaucracy along with the policy of seclusion which caused the stagnation of technology development, are also critical reasons for the declination of China (Calebjael, 2014).

In conclusion, history is a long and complicated story written by every person, every movement, everything which has ever existed in the past time. Geographical factors, such as the presence of little ice age, will inevitably play an essential role in the history, especially in the ancient time. Today, our developments on technology allow us to do whatever we want to do, in spite of the nature. However, it takes price. Our achievement today mostly depends on what the nature gave to our ancestors. We should learn with respect what our ancestors encountered and how they dealt with them, what lesson they did take and what we should do in the future. The little ice age influenced human beings’ society from aspects including agriculture, economics, politics and cultures, etc. and therefore determined the life today to some extent. Our thoughts should be never limited in the little ice age. There are so many other geographical factors and historical events awaiting for us to explore. The attempt of discovering our history never ends.

Reference List:

Albion C. 2014. Impact of The Little Ice Age in Europe. Accessed on 28 June, 2015. Available from http://www.theapricity.com/forum/showthread.php?36426-Impact-of-The-Little-Ice-Age-in-Europe

Brian M. Fagan 2000. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850. Publisher: Basic Books

Imbrie J.; Imbrie K.P (1979). Ice ages: solving the mystery. Short Hills NJ: Enslow Publishers. ISBN 978-0-89490-015-0. Accessed on 20 April 2015.

Jennie Cohen 2012. Little Ice Age, Big Consequences. Accessed on 15 March, 2015. Available from http://www.history.com/news/little-ice-age-big-consequences

Jonathan Cowie 2007.Climate change: biological and human aspects. Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Kelly Morgan, 2010 The economic impact of the little ice age. Accessed on 20 April 2015. Available from http://researchrepository.ucd.ie/handle/10197/2649

K. Kris Hirst,2010 The Little Ice Age and Polynyas. Accessed on 20 April 2015. Available from http://archaeology.about.com/od/arctic/fl/The-Little-Ice-Age-How-Human-Cultures-Respond-to-Climate-Change_2.htm

Peter J. Robinson 2005. The Little Ice Age, Ca. 1300 – 1870. Accessed on 16 March, 2015. Available from http://www.eh-resources.org/timeline/timeline_lia.html

Scott A. Mandia, 2010 The Little Ice Age in Europe. Accessed on 20 April, 2015. Available from http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/lia/little_ice_age.html


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