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February 1, 2010

The Little Ice Age

How Climate Made History: 1300-1850
Brian Fagan - 9780465022724

A very interesting book, and since its subject is timeless, it can't be said to be dated; yet his agenda--and there is one--shows through. Throughout, he kept making the case for global warming, now called climate change, since it appears that we skeptics have been correct all along. He opines that the reconstruction of earlier climatic records "requires meticulous detective work, considerable ingenuity, and increasingly, the use of statistical methods." From the recent e-mail debacle, and the "discovery" that the melting glaciers in the Himalayas is a hoax, it would seem that ingenuity is the operational feature in such "reconstructional" endeavors. Why he uses the global deep-freeze as a springboard for global warming escapes me completely. If the globe is warming, it would seem clearly preferable to the cold of the era he is explaining.

Nevertheless it is a thoughtful and data filled recantation of climate cycles beginning with the immediate pre-renaissance period. He explains the mechanisms and, more interestingly, the impact upon life with the difficulties encountered by that ice age in its various stages.

For instance, he reviews the, devastating North Sea storms which excavated the Zuider Zee, known in Holland as the "Great Drowning of Men." At least 100,000 people were washed out to sea, along with their land. Not until the 20th century was the land reclaimed by Dutch dikes. The worst of these storms occurred in 1362 with hurricane-force winds which devastated large parts of England, Denmark, and Norway as well. For centuries the Basques experienced notable human loss attendant their cod fishing activities in the North Atlantic, their then secret fishing ground.

At other times crops failed and cattle perished as famine and epidemic diseases followed. Accusations of witchcraft abounded. Places where snow had historically been light were inundated with feet of snow, further compounding the calamitously low temperatures. It is not unreasonable to presume that the French Revolution was in part caused by the dire climate of the time--sufficient to marginalize further the already poor French farmers. The living standard of an average English farmer in 1800, he notes, was worse than that of many modern-day Third World subsistence farmers. "Tens of thousands of Englishmen" left for the U.S. from 1815-19.

Volcanic eruptions were productive of several depressions in global temperature, most notably the so-called "Year Without Summer." As well, he allows that diminished solar activity figured into this cooling. Ya think?

"Global mean surface temperatures have risen between 0.4 and 0.8 degrees Centigrade since 1860, and about 0.2- to 0.3 degrees since 1900." Just how and who determined this is left to the imagination. Of course we could just take his word for it, but even today there is serious debate over this kind of information and the means of properly assessing it. He infers that his models are the correct ones. I'd suggest that changes in temperature of a degree Centigrade, or under 2 degrees Fahrenheit over a century and a half are pretty unremarkable. More pleasant, anyone?

He acknowledges that The Little Ice Age is poorly explained and little understood, but certainly there have been similar changes over the eons. While we might expect recurrence in the natural cycle, he insists that there is "increasingly compelling evidence that humans have altered the climatic equation irrevocably (emphasis mine) through their promiscuous use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution." That, and the unprecedented land clearance which both increased the release of carbon dioxide and destroyed the forests which converted it back into oxygen. Our Bad!!

He omits, of course, that reforestation is occurring, and there are now more woodlands in Europe and the Americas than at the time of the ice age he is writing about.

He sums up that "mostly we know what to do but we lack the will to do it." We'd be wise to learn from the climatic lessons of history . . . blah, blah, blah.

Would that he'd bypassed his personal war on "global warming," and limited himself to his subject: "How Climate Made History: 1300-1850," and delivered a pleasant, informative dissertation on its origins as best understood today, and its impact upon civilization! With that caveat, it was a pretty good read.

Posted by Curmudgeon at February 1, 2010 2:08 PM