Stormy thoughts

“Climate change is almost always abrupt, shifting rapidly within decades, even years,” writes Brian Fagin in his book about the Little Ice Age. That period, which interrupted the interglacial warming phase that has seen the rise of human beings to overwhelm the planet, lasted roughly from 1300-1850, and saw massive demographic crises throughout the world; the coldest years were near the end of this period. Folk memory in America highlights the grim winter at Valley Forge (1777-78); Napoleon foolishly invaded Russia (1812) and was decimated by the cold; icebergs got as far south as the coast of Portugal. Then came Tambora, which erupted in 1815, and caused “eighteen hundred and froze to death,” the miserable, murderous summer of 1816, when Mary Shelley, one of the lucky ones, wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, and gave us a philosophical creature we still can’t seem to get our heads around, since we continue to misname him. And then, the climate got back on track to the general trend of warming between glacial advances, something that has gone on for hundreds of thousands, indeed, millions of years. But, around this time, starting in Britain, we started to burn the past — fossil fuels — on a massive scale, and began releasing all that pent-up carbon into the atmosphere, driving the warming faster.

But let’s jump back a bit. Two thousand years ago, a mild period we now call the Medieval Optimum began. The empires of Rome and China had their golden weather ages. Just before its end in the Little Ice Age, Iceland and Greenland were discovered and settled by Vikings. But the transitional periods between climate shifts are characterized by radical weather. These Viking outposts were soon lost as the north Atlantic became impassible with ice and storms. Icelanders barely managed to hold on, and were cut off from the motherland of Europe for decades.

Rome, China, Maya, the West African states, Islam’s rapid rise — you name it, not a one of these has taken place in bad weather epochs. The Sahara turned from lush tropical zone to desert in a matter of decades some 5000 years ago because of a cold spell in the north.

And further back still, some 8000 years ago: a continental slab of ice slid into the Atlantic and forced water surging into the Mediterranean, and pouring into what is now the Black Sea, possibly the source of the myth of the biblical flood. 12,000 years ago, just as the glaciers were mostly well receded from their Wisconsinan maximum (as far south as St. Louis in the Midwest, and the very thing that created the long island Brooklyn sits on now), the Younger Dryas cold spell, a millennium long, began when another enormous influx of ice into the Atlantic.

Farther back still, some 9 million years ago, the early primates known as Dryopithecus fled the cold of Europe into Africa, laying the stages for our ancestors to become Homo sapiens.

‘Tis a fragile world, and all we have known is a lucky interim between extremes.

1 Response to “Stormy thoughts”


  1. 1 mthew June 1, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    Reblogged this on Backyard and Beyond and commented:

    In light of the Ignorant Fool’s body-blow to our future (as Americans, as citizens of the world), here’s one of my posts on climate.


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