The Little Ice Age

| Medieval * Modern |



As charming as the frost covered trees are, especially in the middle of lockdown, there have been plenty of instances in history when a continuous bout of snow days is the last thing the country needs. The most notable winter in the UK (and the whole of Europe) lasted hundreds of years, from the mid 17th century to the mid 19th century. Not quite Game of Thrones level winter, but close. Over this time the rains came, the summers froze, and the home-fires were lit all year. Historians call it ‘the Little Ice Age’.


The whole of Europe experienced widespread frosts at this time. The biting cold destroyed harvests, killed the animals, caused starvation, and created resentment around the world (the delay in the grape harvest and the wine famine was particularly trying). In many countries these years saw the coldest winters in their entire history.


But what caused this? Mostly, it was the Sun. Solar activity and solar intensity was low. Lower than it had been in 2,000 years. Phenomenon like the northern lights became incredibly rare, and weren’t seen for decades at a time – meaning the solar energy was also low. And on top of this, astronomers reported ‘dust veils’ in the atmosphere, dulling the colour of the sun and darkening the sky. These circumstances changed the climate of the Earth, cooling it significantly.


Many historians have since blamed the Little Ice Age for a host of historic events. In particular, the severe weather, global droughts, and the hardships that were rife in the 1640s were thought to have motivated the political issues at the height of what is called the ‘General Crisis’ - the widespread instability seen around the world in the late 17th century. Alongside the huge fractures in political, economic, and social stability, this period saw extreme climatic events, an increase in El Nino episodes, violence frosts, torrential rains and masses of floods. Is this correlation a coincidence? Historians remain divided.


We must always take note of the weather, especially in extreme circumstances. We will never truly understand the consequences. As the French philosopher, Voltaire, theorised "three things exercise a constant influence over the minds of men: government, religions, and climate.”