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The Little Ice Age (LIA) was a period of regional cooling, particularly pronounced in the North Atlantic region. It was not a true ice age of global extent. The term was introduced into scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939. The period has been conventionally defined as extending from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but some experts prefer an alternative timespan from about 1300 to about 1850.
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The NASA Earth Observatory notes three particularly cold intervals. One began about 1650, another about 1770, and the last in 1850, all of which were separated by intervals of slight warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report considered that the timing and the areas affected by the Little Ice Age suggested largely independent regional climate changes, rather than a globally synchronous increased glaciation. At most, there was modest cooling of the Northern Hemisphere during the period.
Several causes have been proposed: cyclical lows in solar radiation, heightened volcanic activity, changes in the ocean circulation, variations in Earth's orbit and axial tilt (orbital forcing), inherent variability in global climate, and decreases in the human population (such as from the Black Death and the epidemics emerging in the Americas upon European contact).
Evidence from mountain glaciers does suggest increased glaciation in a number of widely spread regions outside Europe prior to the twentieth century, including Alaska, New Zealand and Patagonia. However, the timing of maximum glacial advances in these regions differs considerably, suggesting that they may represent largely independent regional climate changes, not a globally-synchronous increased glaciation. Thus current evidence does not support globally synchronous periods of anomalous cold or warmth over this interval, and the conventional terms of "Little Ice Age" and "Medieval Warm Period" appear to have limited utility in describing trends in hemispheric or global mean temperature changes in past centuries.... [Viewed] hemispherically, the "Little Ice Age" can only be considered as a modest cooling of the Northern Hemisphere during this period of less than 1C relative to late twentieth century levels.
...when viewed together, the currently available reconstructions indicate generally greater variability in centennial time scale trends over the last 1 kyr than was apparent in the TAR.... The result is a picture of relatively cool conditions in the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries and warmth in the eleventh and early fifteenth centuries, but the warmest conditions are apparent in the twentieth century. Given that the confidence levels surrounding all of the reconstructions are wide, virtually all reconstructions are effectively encompassed within the uncertainty previously indicated in the TAR. The major differences between the various proxy reconstructions relate to the magnitude of past cool excursions, principally during the twelfth to fourteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
There is no consensus on when the Little Ice Age began, but a series of events before the known climatic minima have often been referenced. In the 13th century, pack ice began advancing southwards in the North Atlantic, as did glaciers in Greenland. Anecdotal evidence suggests expanding glaciers almost worldwide. Based on radiocarbon dating of roughly 150 samples of dead plant material with roots intact that were collected from beneath ice caps on Baffin Island and Iceland, Miller et al. (2012) state that cold summers and ice growth began abruptly between 1275 and 1300, followed by "a substantial intensification" from 1430 to 1455.
Sea ice surrounding Iceland extended for miles in every direction and closed harbors to shipping. The population of Iceland fell by half, but that may have been caused by skeletal fluorosis after the eruption of Laki in 1783. Iceland also suffered failures of cereal crops and people moved away from a grain-based diet. The Norse colonies in Greenland had starved and vanished by the early 15th century because of crop failures and the inability for livestock to be maintained throughout increasingly harsh winters. Greenland was largely cut off by ice from 1410 to the 1720s.
The violinmaker Antonio Stradivari produced his instruments during the Little Ice Age. The colder climate may have caused the wood that was used in his violins to be denser than in warmer periods and to contribute to the tone of his instruments. According to the science historian James Burke, the period inspired such novelties in everyday life as the widespread use of buttons and button-holes, as well as knitting of custom-made undergarments for the better covering and insulating of the body. Chimneys were invented to replace open fires in the centre of communal halls to allow houses with multiple rooms to have the separation of masters from servants.
The Little Ice Age, by the anthropologist Brian Fagan of the University of California at Santa Barbara, describes the plight of European peasants from 1300 to 1850: famines, hypothermia, bread riots and the rise of despotic leaders brutalizing an increasingly-dispirited peasantry. In the late 17th century, agriculture had dropped off dramatically: "Alpine villagers lived on bread made from ground nutshells mixed with barley and oat flour." Historian Wolfgang Behringer has linked intensive witch-hunting episodes in Europe to agricultural failures during the Little Ice Age.
The Frigid Golden Age, by the environmental historian Dagomar Degroot of Georgetown University, points out that some societies thrived, but others faltered during the Little Ice Age. In particular, the Little Ice Age transformed environments around the Dutch Republic and made them easier to exploit in commerce and conflict. The Dutch were resilient, even adaptive, in the face of weather that devastated neighboring countries. Merchants exploited harvest failures, military commanders took advantage of shifting wind patterns, and inventors developed technologies that helped them profit from the cold. The 17th-century Dutch Golden Age therefore owed much to its people's flexibility in coping with the changing climate.
Historians have argued that cultural responses to the consequences of the Little Ice Age in Europe consisted of violent scapegoating. The prolonged cold, dry periods brought drought upon many European communities and resulted in poor crop growth, poor livestock survival, and increased activity of pathogens and disease vectors. Disease intensified under the same conditions that unemployment and economic difficulties arose: prolonged cold, dry seasons. Disease and unemployment generated a lethal positive feedback loop. Although the communities had some contingency plans, such as better crop mixes, emergency grain stocks, and international food trade, they did not always prove effective. Communities often lashed out via violent crimes, including robbery and murder. Accusations of sexual offenses also increased, such as adultery, bestiality, and rape. Europeans sought explanations for the famine, disease, and social unrest that they were experiencing, and they blamed the innocent. Evidence from several studies indicate that increases in violent actions against marginalized groups, which were held responsible for the Little Ice Age, overlap with the years of particularly cold, dry weather.
One example of the violent scapegoating occurring during the Little Ice Age was the resurgence of witchcraft trials. Oster (2004) and Behringer (1999) argue that the resurgence was brought by the climatic decline. Prior to the Little Ice Age, witchcraft was considered an insignificant crime, and victims were rarely accused. But beginning in the 1380s, just as the Little Ice Age began, European populations began to link magic and weather-making. The first systematic witch hunts began in the 1430s, and by the 1480s, it was widely believed that witches should be held accountable for poor weather. Witches were blamed for direct and indirect consequences of the Little Ice Age: livestock epidemics, cows that gave too little milk, late frosts, and unknown diseases. In general, the number of witchcraft trials rose as the temperature dropped, and trials decreased when temperature increased. The peaks of witchcraft persecutions overlap with the hunger crises that occurred in 1570 and 1580, the latter lasting a decade. The trials targeted primarily poor women, many of them widows. Not everybody agreed that witches should be persecuted for weather-making, but such arguments focused primarily not upon whether witches existed but upon whether witches had the capability to control the weather. The Catholic Church in the Early Middle Ages argued that witches could not control the weather because they were mortals, not God, but by the mid-13th century, most people agreed with the idea that witches could control natural forces.
Jewish populations were also blamed for climatic deterioration during the Little Ice Age. The Western European states experienced waves of anti-Semitism, directed against the main religious minority in their otherwise Christian societies. There was no direct link made between Jews and the weather; they were blamed only for indirect consequences such as disease. Outbreaks of the Black Death were often blamed on Jews. In Western European cities during the 1300s, Jewish populations were murdered to stop the spread of the plague. Rumors spread that Jews were either poisoning wells themselves, or telling lepers to poison the wells. To escape persecution, some Jews converted to Christianity, while others migrated to the Ottoman Empire, Italy or the Holy Roman Empire, where they experienced greater toleration. 041b061a72