Global warming and cooling
From the Armada to the Irish potato famine, climate has made history

In September 1588, the retreating Spanish Armada, widely scattered from the Bay of Biscay to the western coast of Ireland, was daily battered by thrashing storms, "on our beam with a sea up to the heavens so that the cables could not hold, nor the sails serve us". Recent analysis of the captains' logs has shown that the wind squalls were as high as 60 knots, near hurricane strength, as a violent cyclonic depression advanced, the probable spin-off of a tropical hurricane.

King Philip II's "Great Enterprise" lost more ships to the weather than to the English fleet, allowing Queen Elizabeth I's spin doctors to claim that "God blew and they were scattered". Rudyard Kipling thus got it wrong when he wrote in Puck's Song: "Oh that was where they hauled the guns/ That smote King Philip's fleet!" The true winner was a severe climatic deterioration between 1560 and 1600 which was characterised by cooler winters and an 85 per cent increase in storm activity, weather that also caused wine harvests to flow late and sour quickly, while famine followed famine upon epidemic.

Brian Fagan, one of America's leading archaeologists, has written a most timely and riveting book examining in minute detail the ever-changing relationship between humanity and climate.

In Europe, we are currently obsessed by "global warming", one of the great myths of our age. But how would we have enjoyed the winter of 1309-10, an exceptionally cold and dry year, when the Thames iced over, bread froze indoors - even when protected by straw - and shipping was disrupted from the Baltic Sea to the English Channel? This was just after the start of what we call the Little Ice Age, which can first be detected around 1200 from the evidence of tree rings and ice cores from Greenland and the Arctic. It would go on to curse Europe with great hungers, especially in 1315-19, 1741, and 1816, "the year without a summer".

The book starts with the so-called Medieval Warm Period when Norse settlements flourished in Greenland (c 980s) and wine cultivation graced the gentler slopes of England. The temperature was warmer than today, "global warming" or not, and, according to Fagan, "was an unqualified blessing for the rural poor and small farmers". Some climatologists call it the Medieval Climate Optimum. It is an intriguing question as to why we now fear warmth so much.

Fagan then discusses the terrible vicissitudes of the "Cooling", a climatic see-saw of storms, dearth, glacial advances, and prolonged winters that occurred from the beginning of the 14th century to the middle of the 19th century. Finally, we return to the warming of the modern era, after the Little Ice Age had ended in the 19th Century just as it had begun, - with famine, the An Ghorta Mor, "The Great Hun-ger", of Ireland.

Not all such disasters were, of course, determined by climate. Fagan rightly points out that the social and political response to climate- change is immensely complex. But he also shows that climate has always changed and that such transformation cannot be ignored as a significant player on the historical stage of Europe. It is surely a self-deception of our post-materialist, New-Age world to belie-ve that we can achieve harmony and balance in this most chaotic of natural systems.

Carbon dioxide emissions have become the new witchcraft, the most recent devil to blame for the inherent instability of climate. But Fagan is rightly cautious about current climate-change science, commenting sensibly that "long-term climatic projections require models of mind-boggling complexity" which "are no better than the technology and software that run them, or the data fed into them".

This book, however, is better than any model, for it is a study of real climate and real people in Europe throughout the last Millennium. And the tale is one of human adaptation, or failure of adaptation, to inexorable change that "is almost always abrupt, shifting rapidly within decades, even years, and entirely capricious".

Philip Stott is Professor of Biogeography in the University of London and Editor of the 'Journal of Biogeography'.

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