The Little Ice Age: History of Climate-Induced Crisis in Europe and East Asia

Editors note on our East Asia series:

East Asia is the most densely populated region on the planet.  With that comes growing economic clout but also significant development challenges.  Successful achievement of sustainability goals in East Asia will impact more lives than action in the rest of the world combined.  Because of this the actions of this region are important not only as examples for the rest of the world but also as the largest scale sustainable development actions in the world.  This series will focus on all of the sustainability challenges and opportunities in this area of the world that is rapidly becoming the most important locus of sustainable development.

During the so-called Little Ice Age, a global crisis ensued from roughly 1550 to 1850. It was a turbulent world of climate change, marked by a decrease in solar and volcanic activity, a resulting drop in average temperatures (1.5 °C below those of today), and a “fatal synergy” of severe winters, summer frosts and droughts around the globe, from Western Europe to Japan, and in parts of Africa and the Americas. This period of global ‘cooling,’ so the story goes, was the main culprit behind major human and social catastrophes. The latest work in the field, Global Crisis: War, Climate and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century by Geoffrey Parker, provides ample evidence for this view. As Parker clarifies, the Little Ice Age coincided with plunging agricultural productivity; an unprecedented tally of famines, rebellions, epidemics and outbreaks of violence; and an estimated loss of one-third of the global population. This crisis is eerily prophetic of our current predicament, as we face an increasingly warmer and aberrant climate, and, at this rate, another global crisis.

The Little Ice Age is a burgeoning field of scholarship, with insights from disciplines as varied as climatology, economics and history. A pioneer was climate historian Hubert H. Lamb who used scientific studies on glacier movement, and historical records to propose that much of Europe cooled down from 1550 to 1850. Lamb’s argument found firm support in climatologist Gordon Manley’s work with the Central England Temperature (CET) record, the longest time series of monthly mean temperatures in the world; and in Historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s work on wine harvest cycles in French history. Recently, this synergy of cross-disciplinary collaboration reached a new threshold, as encapsulated in the aforementioned book, Global Crisis. Environmental historians are now examining both human and natural archives, drawing from fields as varied as archaeology, glaciology, dendrochronology and palynology, to paint a fuller picture of climate-induced crisis during the early modern period (1500-1800).

Much remains to be corroborated, but we know best about Europe and East Asia, two opposite poles on Eurasia with long-standing traditions of documenting changes in nature. In Europe, a Swiss botanist, Renward Cysat, noted in disbelief that a “strange and wondrous succession of changes in the weather” was sweeping Luzern, Switzerland. His contemporaries in Western Europe concurred, as they witnessed the River Thames of London freeze (see image), flash floods from snowmelt in the Dutch Republic, and severe summer frosts in Poland, just to name a few. In terms of agriculture, summer frosts were particularly devastating. Looking further south, we find frost-induced crop failures even in the region of Moldavia. In the summer of 1670,

Terrible floods, frequent showers and heavy rainfall day and night raged for three months on end, destroying all of the best wheat, barley oats, millet and all types of crop. Because they lie in water and are attacked by too much moisture, they neither ripen nor can bear seeds. Nor can the grasses and herbaceous seeds in hay-fields grow, for frost and water; or, if they do, they cannot be harvested [because] the sun never warms or dries up the land.

As this record, together with the quantitative evidence, makes clear, climate change was real and catastrophic in much of Europe. When the abbess of a convent near Paris deplored that “a third of the world has died,” he was, as Parker shows, probably right. In extreme cases, as in parts of Germany, two-thirds of their population vanished in the mid-1650s.

In East Asia, the opposite pole of the Eurasian landmass, climate-induced crisis was no less, if not more, severe. Even before historians included climate in their accounts, East Asians have noted the seventeenth century as one of the most turbulent periods in history. If you ask any learned Chinese or Korean national about the period, he or she is likely to enumerate incidences of military conflicts and social unrest – dynastic exchange, famines, epidemics, popular rebellions, and nomadic invasions. So dramatic was the crisis that Korean history textbooks draw a sharp divide between before and after the 1600s to distinguish the early and the late Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910).

Yet, little did they know that climate change figured importantly in these momentous historical changes. Recently, as Parker and other historians have uncovered, major wars and political changes are correlated with climate shocks of the mid-1600s. In China, a succession of aberrant El Niño years and volcanic activity left a trail of death, drought and famine during the 1640s. In North China, Henan province experienced “the worst drought recorded in the last five centuries,” a period of eleven months without rain accompanied by floods, locusts and famine. Moving south, Jiangnan province, the affluent breadbasket of southern China, suffered from “severe frost and heavy snow, followed by the second driest year recorded during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” Other parts of South China faced a similar fate: subtropical China reported heavy snowfall in 1640, and 4-5 inches of snow and ice in 1642. Further, in 1641, China’s grain transport came to a halt due to the desiccation of the Grand Canal, the umbilical cord of China’s interregional grain transport. In the next few decades, a combination of famine, rebellion and nomadic invasion ensued, followed by a dynastic change. Allegedly, “over half of China’s population perished” by the time the new Qing dynasty (1644-1912) unified China.

As I will explore in future articles, other parts of East Asia underwent similar crises. Around the same time, Japan had abnormally early and long winters, and severe famines during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Additionally, in Korea, a succession of prolonged droughts and cold spells led to famines, the severest of which wiped out 20% of its population in 1670-1. The ways in which these states managed increased famine, warfare and social unrest will be the subject of forthcoming articles.

Climate change wrought catastrophe in the early modern world, and history should serve as a cautionary tale for the public as well as for policymakers who shape our future. Particularly, a tale of climate crisis in East Asia bears great significance: Chinese and Indian policymakers play crucial roles in climate policy, but have so far taken timid actions. History may alert them that, be it global cooling or warming, climate shocks will bring exceptional challenges to state capacity and social welfare. History should also remind us that unlike during the Little Ice Age, we have and should take ownership of climate change issues. Unlike when decreasing solar and volcanic activity caused the Little Ice Age, today’s increasing carbon emissions are human-made problems that will ultimately require human-made solutions.

Image credit Olborne from Wikimedia Commons.

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