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Little Ice Age

Last updated date: 17th Apr 2024
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Introduction to Little Ice Age

The little ice age(LIA) was a period of cooling which occurred after the medieval warm period. Even though the little ice age was not the true ice age period, the term was first introduced into the scientific literature in 1939 by François E. Matthes. It has been traditionally defined as the period which extended from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Few of the other experts have other views on the timeline and some prefer the timespan from about 1300 to about 1850. 

The earth observatories such as the NASA Earth Observatory have noted particularly three cold intervals in which the one began in 1650, another in 1770, and the last in 1850. All the cold intervals were separated by intervals of slight warming. There are many reports that suggest that the timing and the areas that were affected by the little ice age suggested that there were largely independent regional climate changes rather than a globally synchronized increased glaciation.IT is believed that there was modest cooling of the northern hemisphere during the little ice age period. 

In this article, we are going to discuss what little ice age is, little ice age cause,

little ice age effects and other factors related to it.

Little Ice Age Effects

The little ice age was a period that had regional cold conditions and lasts for a period between 1300 to 1850. The term little ice age has been questionable as there was not a single and well-defined period that lasted which had a prolonged cold condition. Noticeably there were two periods of the little ice age, the first period begins around the year 1290 and continued for more than two centuries till the 1400s. After the first period, there was a warmer period in the 1500s and after it, there was another cold period which is considered to be the coldest period of all the three. The second period started in the year 1645 and lasted till the year 1715. During this coldest phase of the ice age, the conditions were very bad as the average winter temperature in North America and Europe was as low as 2-degree celsius.

Throughout history, there is a considerable amount of evidence that supports the little ice age such as the complete freezing of the Baltic sea and many rivers and lakes in Europe. During this period pack, ice had expanded far south into the Atlantic making shipping to Iceland and Greenland impossible for months on end. Winter used to be very cold and whereas the summers were often very cool and wet. Due to all these conditions, there were widespread failures while harvesting the crops, there was famine and also a huge population decline as many people could not bear the harsh cold conditions. The snowline and the tree lines dropped and the glacier advanced which led to the destruction of many houses and farmlands in the process. The majority of the population were reduced to poverty as they lost their lands and also many starved to death as there was not enough food for everyone and as a result of this, there was an increased level of unrest in the society. 

Areas Involved in the Little Ice Age

  • During the little ice age, the areas were generally one degree Celsius colder than the present temperature. In Europe, many of the Baltic seas completely froze and so did many rivers and lakes. Winters were very cold and prolonged which reduced the growing season by weeks. The bitter winters led to a widespread crop failure and there was also population decline. 

  • As there was a widespread crop failure, the prices of the grains increased exponentially, and also the production of wine became very difficult in most of the areas and the commercial vinegar also vanished in many regions of England. As many lakes and rivers were frozen, fishing in northern Europe was also badly affected. Flooding and the occurrence of the threatful storms increased and in the mountain regions, the treeline and snowline dropped. In addition to all the problems, the glaciers advanced in the Alps and Northern Europe which led to the destruction of many towns and farms. 

  • There has been evidence that supports the idea that glaciation was increased due to the mountain glaciers and it hit a number of widely spread regions outside Europe in the early twentieth century which included New Zealand, Alaska, and Patagonia. Advancing of the glaciers differed in different regions, which suggested that they may not represent a globally synchronous increased glaciation but it suggested that they represent largely independent regional climate changes. 

  • Due to this reason, much evidence suggests and does not support the idea that there was a globally synchronous period or an event of cold or warmth over these intervals and that is the reason this period is referred to as the ‘little ice age’.

  • The conventional terms such as the ‘the little ice age’ and the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ appear to have limited usefulness in describing trends in the hemispheric or the global mean temperature in the past centuries. 

  • The little ice age could be considered as an age when there was modest cooling of the Northern Hemisphere and during this period the temperature was less than one degree celsius. 

  • The hardest-hit area during the little ice age was Iceland. It was very difficult to bring the ship ashore anywhere along the coast. It became an impossible task to grow grains or even hay crops in Iceland during this period. The volcanic activity made life even harder and during the little ice age, Iceland lost half of its population. 

  • In Scandinavia, many farms were destroyed due to the advancing ice of glaciers and the meltwater streams. In the high mountains(Alps), the glaciers advanced and destroyed many towns. Ice-dammed lakes busted many times and as a result of that destroyed hundreds of buildings and killed thousands of people. 

Dating of the Little Ice Age 

  • There is no specific time to prove when the ice age began but a series of events before the climatic minima are considered to be the cause.

  • Based on radiocarbon dating of roughly 150 samples of the dead plant material with the roots intact which was collected from the ice caps of the Baffin islands and Iceland, it states that cold summers and the ice growth began between the year 1275 and 1300 which was followed by a substantial intensification from the year 1430 to 1455. 

  • Climate reconstruction which was done based on the glacial length shows no variation from the year 1600 to 1850. Their fore t\it has been believed that any several dates ranging over 400 years may indicate the beginning of the little ice age. 

  • It is believed that in the year 1250, the Atlantic pack ice began to grow. The cold period was enhanced by the massive Samalas volcanic eruption in the year 1257.

  • It is believed that the event in which radiation dating plants that were killed by the glaciation happened between the year 1275 to 1300. 

  • In the year 1300, the warm summers stopped being dependable in Northern Europe. 

  • The great famine started in the year 1315 and lasted till 1315 and so did the rain which killed many people and destroyed acres of lands. 

  • The worldwide glacial expansion which is also known as the Grindelwald Fluctuation began in the year 1560 and lasted till 1630. 

  • The little ice age ended in the early 20th century or the later half of the 19th century. 

Little Ice Age and Europe

  • During the little ice age in Europe, despite the difficulties which many people were facing in the marginal regions, the culture and the economy were generally flowering. People of Europe started to transform their surrounding environment during the  17th and 18th centuries where there was an expansion in agriculture and also there was large-scale reclamation of the land. 

  • The little ice age also coincided with the maritime expansion of the European and the creation of seaborne trading and later colonial empires such as the Portuguese, Spanish, which were followed by the Dutch, English, and European nations.Sea trading was successful due to the development of the shipbuilding technology which was a direct response to the climate pressures and the trading strategies.

  • Art and architecture were in boon during the little ice age period. The winter landscape paintings can be considered as the direct result of the little ice age. This painting showed the viewers many things such as the ice-skaters enjoying themselves, which was considered as the sign that people at that time were more capable to withstand the harsh winter conditions and that they also had enough food. 

  • In the isolated regions such as the high alpine areas of Switzerland, Iceland, or the highlands of Scotland, the unfavorable weather conditions of the little ice age such as the cold springs and harvest raisin as well as the longer winters had a strong influence on the grain prices and were the drivers for the local famines. 

  • The little ice age was characterized by the increased droughts and the increased flood frequency in central Europe. The impact of the little ice age differed in different parts of Europe, some regions thrived while others struggled. 

Little Ice Age Cause

Many of the scientists do not have an exact idea, but few scientists have identified seven possible causes of the little ice age which are orbital cycles, decreased solar activity, altered ocean current flow, volcanic eruptions, the inherent variability of the global climate, and the fluctuation in the human population.

Volcanic Activity 

  • It is believed that the cool conditions in different regions during the little ice age might have been the influence for the explosive volcanic eruptions such as the eruption of Laki in Iceland in the year 1783 and again on Sumbawa island in the year 1815. When the volcanoes erupt they propel gases and ash in the stratosphere which then reflect the incoming solar radiation.

  • Volcanic eruptions have been linked to the conditions of lower average temperature around the world which may have lasted a few years. 

  • There has been an argument about the volcanic eruption between the scientist were some scientist have speculated an idea that such volcanic eruptions might have the strength and might have extended the negative phase of the NAO which resulted in bringing cooler conditions in the northern hemisphere, however, there are other scientists who have argued that the explosive volcanic eruptions may be linked to the warmer winter conditions across northern Europe. 

Orbital Cycles 

  • For the past two thousand years, orbital forcing from the cycles in the earth’s orbit around the sun has eventually caused a long-term cooling of the northern hemisphere that continued throughout the medieval ice age and the little ice age.

  • The rate of Arctic cooling is about 0.02-degree Celsius per century and this was the trend that was believed to continue in the future but due to the rise in the global temperatures around the planet which is a direct result of excessive greenhouse gases emissions, there has been a sudden reversal of the trend.

Ocean Circulation

  • Another possibility of what was the cause of the little ice age could be that there was a slowing of the thermohaline circulation. The thermocline circulation might have been interrupted by the introduction of a large amount of freshwater into the North Atlantic which could have been possibly caused by a period of warming before the little ice age which is known as the Medieval Warm period.

  • There has been speculation that the shutdown of the thermohaline circulation could have happened again as a result of the present warming period. 

Fluctuation in the Human Population 

It has been speculated that the increased human populations which were living in the higher latitudes could have caused the little ice age through deforestation. The increase in human population is also one of the main reasons for the increase in global warming all around the world. 

FAQs on Little Ice Age

Q1: When Was the Mini Ice Age?

Ans: The little ice age or the mini ice age or the small ice age was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period. The middle ice age started in the year 1303 and ended in the year 1860. 

Q2: How Many Little Ice Ages or the Mini Ice Age Have Been There in Total?

Ans: Throughout many years, scientists have recorded five significant ice age events throughout the Earth’s history. Between the period of 2.4-2.1 billion years ago, we had the Huronian which was followed by Cryogenic which was about 850-635 million years ago. Between the period of 460-439 mya, there was Andean-Saharan glaciation. Between 360-260 mya, The late Paleozoic icehouse or the Karoo ice age was present which was considered to be the second major glacial period of the Phanerozoic. From 2.6 million years ago to the present we have the quaternary ice age which is marked to have both warm and cold phases.