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What Was the Little Ice Age?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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The Little Ice Age was a period of brief cooling in the Northern Hemisphere which lasted roughly from 1400 CE to around 1800 CE. It was directly preceded by an unusually warm epoch, known as the Medieval Warm Period. This period of time had a serious economic, social, and political impact on Europe, and it has been a topic of extensive study as a result. Along with other fluctuations in climate, it may also provide clues about overall global climate trends.

During the Little Ice Age, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere dropped to unusually low levels. These temperature drops were accompanied by severe weather, such as heavy rain, snow, and very harsh winters. Flooding, especially sea flooding, was a major problem during this time, and the hostile climate had a direct impact on the viability of crops throughout Europe. Some years were marked by extremely poor crops, resulting in ripples of problems which spread to all ranks of society.

When a harvest is reduced, it drives the cost of that crop up. This tends to have a depressive effect on an economy, as people in the lower divisions of society struggle to avoid food. Starvation and serious health problems were associated with the Little Ice Age, with some countries experiencing food riots and revolutions related to access to the materials needed for life.

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Many contemporaries observed the weather changes associated with the Little Ice Age and commented on them. Rivers which did not normally freeze over became encrusted with ice in the winters, for example, and people wrote about increased rainfall, hail, and other strange weather events. Some historians suggest that the brief ice age may have even had an impact on art, with more snowy, dark themes appearing during this age than before.

Climate change on the Earth appears to run in cyclical patterns, with brief periods of warming and cooling which subtly change life on Earth. Study on the Little Ice Age has suggested that it was caused by natural factors, such as decreased solar activity and increased volcanic activity, which would have literally darkened the skies, lowering overall temperatures. The rising global temperatures at the end of the 20th century are markedly different, as they appear to be caused by extensive human activity, and the temperature change is so dramatically rapid that it is a cause for major concern.

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