Dr. Dagomar Degroot, Georgetown University
Earth’s climate is changing with terrifying speed. Humanity has added several hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, strengthening a greenhouse effect that has now warmed the planet by roughly one degree Celsius. The scale, speed, and causes of today’s global warming have no precedent, but of course natural forces have always changed Earth’s climate. We now know that these changes were big enough to shape the fates of past societies. Most confronted disaster, but a few seemed to prosper in spite of – and in some cases because of – climate changes. Perhaps the most successful of all emerged in the coastal fringes of the present-day Netherlands. It has left us with lessons that may offer new perspectives on our fate in a warmer world.
To contextualize present-day warming, paleoclimatologists have scoured the globe for signs of past climate change. They have found layers buried deep in glacial ice and cave stalagmites, sediments embedded in lakebeds and ocean floors, and rings wound around tree trunks and stony corals. All bear silent testament to ancient weather. Together, they reveal that, sometime in the thirteenth century, Earth’s climate started cooling.
Huge volcanic eruptions lofted dust high into the stratosphere that blocked incoming sunlight. The Sun itself slipped into a dormant phase, sending less energy to the Earth. A long-running shift in Earth’s axial tilt gradually reduced the amount of solar energy that reached the northern hemisphere. Sea ice expanded, wind patterns changed, and ocean currents altered their flow. Patterns of precipitation fluctuated dramatically, bringing torrential rains to some places, and unprecedented droughts to others. A long “Little Ice Age” had begun.
A tree ring reconstruction of average summer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere over the past 2,500 years (red), with a thirty-year moving average (blue). The baseline (“0”) is the late twentieth-century average. Temperatures in the seventeenth century were cold but erratic. Developed from M. Sigl et al., “Timing and Climate Forcing of Volcanic Eruptions for the Past 2,500 Years,” Nature 523 (2015): 545.
In the closing decades of the sixteenth century, this Little Ice Age reached its chilliest point across much of the northern hemisphere. By then, the world had cooled by nearly one degree Celsius, relative to average temperatures in the twentieth century. In many places, weather had also grown more volatile and less predictable from year to year, season to season. Despite its name, the Little Ice Age involved more than constant cooling.
Historians, historical geographers, and archaeologists have argued that the onset of the coldest and most erratic phase of the Little Ice Age could not have come at a worse time. For centuries, populations in the greatest empires of the day had steadily increased. By the sixteenth century, millions depended on crops stubbornly cultivated in arid, unproductive farmland. When falling temperatures shortened growing seasons, when monsoons failed, or when storms flooded fields, harvests in these regions failed again and again.
Many farmers responded by swapping crops that prefer warm, stable weather for those that cope better with cold, volatile conditions. Some diversified their fields. Yet often there was just no dealing with droughts, torrential rains, or cold snaps that lasted for longer than a year or two. Famine and then starvation spread from the plains of the Aztec Empire to the woodlands of the Mutapa Kingdom, from the steppes of the Grand Duchy of Moscow to the rice fields of the Ming Dynasty.
The worst was yet to come. Temperature and precipitation extremes sickened plants and animals alike, compounding food shortages. As temperatures dropped, farmers huddled in huts with their ailing livestock. In those conditions, diseases spread easily from animals to people. Malnourished human bodies, meanwhile, have weak immune systems, which makes them easy prey for bacteria and viruses. Changing weather patterns also altered the range of insects that carried disease pathogens, bringing new and deadly ailments to the previously unexposed. In empire after empire, millions fled from the famine-stricken countryside, unwittingly infected by diseases that they carried to cities. Where famine lingered, epidemic outbreaks often followed.
In one empire after another, the sick and starving blamed governments for their misery. They were usually right. Few governments responded constructively to the crises they faced, and most made them worse by, for example, increasing taxes or embarking on wars. The coldest stretch of the Little Ice Age therefore coincided with an unprecedented surge of revolts and civil wars. Rebel and state armies alike conscripted farm laborers from the already overburdened countryside, imposed new demands on marginal farmland, and joined refugees in spreading disease. In the end, millions died.
Yet remarkably, inhabitants of the Dutch Republic – the precursor state to today’s Netherlands – enjoyed a Golden Age that perfectly coincided with the chilliest century of the Little Ice Age. Somehow, a country with about as many people as Providence, Rhode Island emerged as a European great power, with a navy that went from victory to victory, an army that held the mighty Spanish Empire at bay, and a commercial fleet that dwarfed all others. Today, the art of Rembrandt and Vermeer – painted in the coldest years of the Little Ice Age – gives a distant echo of the energy and prosperity of those incredible times.
The Dutch Republic was something of an oddball in the seventeenth-century world. The overwhelming majority in most societies toiled in rural fields, growing crops for local markets. Many Dutch farmers, by contrast, cultivated cash crops for distant consumers. The republic therefore depended on a steady flow of grain imports from the rich and diverse farmland along the Baltic Sea. Over time, a growing share of Dutch citizens worked in commercial interests and industries with headquarters in or near port cities that would have been underwater, were it not for an extensive network of dikes and sluices. Urbanization rates were soon higher in the republic than they were just about anywhere else. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of sailors plied Dutch trades that reached deep into the Arctic, the Americas, Africa, and Asia.
Sailing depended on two things: favorable winds and open, ice-free water. By changing currents and cooling temperatures in the atmosphere and oceans, the chilliest stretches of the Little Ice Age therefore affected sailing as much as farming. Yet the impact was very different. New wind patterns actually sped up ships that left the republic for Asia or America, shortening their journeys.
In the waters off northern Europe, storms were unusually frequent and severe in the coldest stretches of the Little Ice Age. Many ships foundered, and many sailors drowned. Yet crews aboard the republic’s biggest merchant ships – ones that carried the richest cargo from distant markets – weathered storms much better than sailors aboard other European ships. In fact, storms often benefitted Dutch sailors by further increasing the speed of these big ships.
Even sea ice aided the Dutch, including in the Arctic. It took plenty of sea ice – but not too much – to redirect Dutch voyages of northern exploration towards the rich bowhead whale feeding grounds off the archipelago of Svalbard, which lies between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole. Whalers from all over Europe soon set up shop there. For a long time, the edge of the Arctic pack ice lingered near Dutch whaling stations, and since whales gathered along the edge of the ice, the Dutch benefited. By following the ice edge west, Dutch whalers even found whale breeding grounds off the little island of Jan Mayen.
The Dutch fought most of their wars on or around water. Climatic cooling may have benefited their armies and fleets even more than their merchants. The Dutch flooded their own farmland to thwart Spanish and later French invasions. Some of these floods would not have succeeded without torrential rains that reflected new atmospheric realities.
Later in the seventeenth century, cooling coincided with a shift in the strength of atmospheric high and low pressure zones over the Atlantic Ocean, which sharply increased the frequency of easterly winds over northern Europe. Sailors aboard Dutch warships heading into battle from the republic often had what was then called the “weather gage:” the upwind position from a downwind opponent. That allowed them to decide exactly how and when to deploy new “line of battle” tactics, in which warships would sail by each other in single file while firing broadsides. New wind patterns played a role in helping the Dutch win wars they might otherwise have lost.
Still, climate change did not always aid the Dutch. In the Arctic, sea ice crushed ships, drowned sailors, and screened whales from whalers. Sailors in small ships that carried grain and timber from the Baltic Sea endured violent storms and confronted thick sea ice that blocked their way. Cold snaps in the Baltic occasionally led to harvest failures that imperiled the republic’s precious grain imports. Ice repeatedly blocked the waterways of the republic, suffocating travel between cities and raising the specter of flooding when the ice thawed. Sometimes, ice froze rivers that otherwise served as barriers to invasion. Left unattended, candles and stoves in cold winter weather kindled fires that swept through the cities of the republic.
Time and again, the Dutch responded creatively. Shipwrights fortified the hulls of whaling ships and greased them until they slid off ice. Civilians and soldiers hacked through ice to preserve open water in their defensive rivers. Guilds and city governments bought icebreakers that not only kept waterways open, but actually manufactured ice blocks for use in cellars. When the ice was too thick, the Dutch used skates and sleds to turn frozen canals into busy thoroughfares. Merchants divided their goods between different ships, and invested in marine insurance. They stockpiled Baltic grain in good years, and sold it for healthy profits whenever food shortages plagued Europe. Charities maintained a steady supply of food for the urban poor. Inventors pioneered new firefighting tactics and equipment, and made good money selling them across Europe.
The Dutch, in short, were lucky to benefit from environmental changes that favored their unusual economy. But they also made their own luck. The society they built ended up being remarkably resilient in the face of new weather patterns that spelled disaster elsewhere in Europe. By relying so heavily on farmers scratching out a meagre existence on marginal farmland, other civilizations developed vulnerabilities to climate change that simply did not exist in the Dutch Republic.
In fact, the Dutch may even have adapted their technologies and policies to exploit the Little Ice Age, though they may not have recognized the trends in weather that we call climate change. Why were they so flexible in the face of changing environmental circumstances? In part, the answer may lie in their long history of draining and damming the Low Countries. The Dutch long understood that environments can change, and that societies can either adapt or succumb.
There was a darker side to the republic’s prosperity. The Dutch thrived in part by preying on communities and civilizations the world over. They shattered Iberian trading monopolies in Asia, seized expansive territories in the Americas, overwhelmed English whalers in the Arctic, and infamously broke into an African slave trade that cruelly exploited millions of people. The weather extremes of the Little Ice Age had often weakened communities that the Dutch victimized. In the republic, adaptation to climate change could take the form of a parasitic kind of opportunism that leveraged vulnerabilities in other societies.
What, then, can the history of the republic’s frigid Golden Age teach us today? First and perhaps most importantly, it shows us that even relatively small changes in Earth’s average temperature can have enormous social consequences. Across much of the seventeenth-century world, the gloomiest predictions for our warmer future came true. A third of humanity may have died in disasters either set in motion or worsened by climate change.
The world has already warmed more, relative to average temperatures in the twentieth century, than it cooled in the chilliest stretches of the Little Ice Age. Our best projections suggest that it will warm by roughly three degrees Celsius in the coming century, if and only if countries follow through on their Paris Agreement pledges. Histories of the Little Ice Age therefore give us an urgent call to arms. We have technologies that our ancestors could not have imagined. But there are far more of us, consuming unimaginably more plants and animals, metals and fuels. And we too depend on a huge network of fields and fisheries that may not survive drastic changes in temperature and precipitation.
That leads us to our second lesson: climate change has had, and probably will have, very unequal consequences for different societies, communities, and individuals. Many assume that rich societies cope best with climate change. Yet some of the wealthiest seventeenth-century empires actually fared worst in the coldest and most volatile years of the Little Ice Age. Climate change, it seems, imperils not only societies that have few resources to exploit, but also those that require abundant resources to prosper.
The Dutch thrived in the seventeenth century not because their republic was rich, but because much of its wealth derived from activities that climate change benefited. Today, we can learn from the republic by strengthening social safety nets, investing in technologies that exploit or reduce climate change, and more broadly by thinking proactively about how we will adapt to the warmer planet of our future. We can learn from the Dutch in another way too, by strengthening bonds between countries and communities, rather than preying on the most vulnerable.
Ultimately, the lessons of the past come to us in the form of parables: stories that hint at deeper truths but do not tell us exactly what to do. That does not make them any less valuable. We now know that we cannot ignore our changing climate, that it will shape our fortunes in the decades to come. Let us use the warnings of the past to confront the looming catastrophe in our future, while we still can.
This article summarizes some important ideas in my new book, The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720. You can buy the hardcover on the Cambridge University Press website or on Amazon, and you'll soon be able to purchase the paperback.
The Washington Post published a modified and much shorter version of this article. You can find it here.
Dr. Ruth Morgan, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society
Protest in Bonn at the start of COP 23. Photo by Spielvogel.
I joined the most recent UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn with a delegation from Monash University, which also included legal scholars, renewable energy specialists, and science communicators. The opportunity to observe and participate in the activities that accompany the negotiations was too good to pass up. Both personally and professionally, I have closely followed the machinations of international climate politics over the past decade, with particular attention to the work of Australian scientists and policymakers in the past and present. Attending and participating in the conference offered the chance to see firsthand how delegates and other actors negotiate and deliberate to shape the future of our planet. Here, I reflect on the different ways that the past inflected these discussions, and how they resonate with the fields of climate and environmental history.
With Fiji presiding, the COP23 had the specific goal of preparing the implementation phase of the Paris Agreement. Having celebrated the achievements of Paris in 2015, now was the time to get down to work to ensure that the rise of global temperatures is limited to 2 Celsius or below. The organisation of COP23 was such that intergovernmental negotiations took place in the ‘Bula Zone’, while about two kilometres away in the Rheinaue Leisure Park was the ‘Bonn Zone’, where governments and all manner of non-governmental organisations showcased their work in events, exhibits, and demonstrations. I was granted access only to the latter; I gathered from colleagues and other participants that the distance between the two spaces was a shortcoming because it isolated negotiators from the energetic atmosphere in this area, while diminishing the transparency and openness of the negotiations.
In observing how national interests shape global climate policies, I was especially interested in representations of economic development, adaptation, and climate justice, and how these informed the discussions at the COP23. These issues are inherently historical in nature, processes spurred by global configurations of imperialism, capitalism, and (de-)colonisation since at least the eighteenth century. With the small island nation of Fiji as co-host of the meeting, these concerns were front and centre for the duration of the event. The strong cultural presence of Fiji in both the Bula (meaning ‘welcome’) and Bonn Zones ensured that there was both a sense of place and a sense of urgency to the negotiations. As the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama reminded attendees on the eve of the conference, we are ‘all in the same canoe’.
COP23 hoardings outside the building that once hosted the Deutsches Bundestag. Photo by author.
Here, the inequities of anthropogenic climate change were palpable. Among the worst-affected by the increased frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events of a warmer planet will be those former colonies, such as the low-lying islands of the Pacific, that comprise the Global South. There is a dark irony, as Dipesh Chakrabarty and others have argued, that these peoples and places are bearing the brunt of a planetary phenomenon to which they have contributed little. They have received little of the benefits from economic growth associated with increased carbon dioxide emissions, but face the most immediate costs with the fewest resources to adapt. Having recently relocated the village of Vunidogoloa in the face of flooding and coastal erosion, and with plans to relocate many more, Fiji symbolized just what was at stake in Bonn.
The Adi Yeta on display in the Bula Zone. This drua is an 8-metre long traditional double-hulled, open ocean sailing canoe. Made from tropical hardwood and coconut fibre, the Adi Yeta was built in Suva, Fiji several years ago and was shipped to Bonn from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. This drua will be permanently displayed in their new Pacific Encounters gallery in late 2018. Photograph courtesy of UNFCCC COP23.
The display and performance of the nation’s culture and history in both zones reinforced this symbolism. Each day, members of the Fijian delegation danced, sang and practiced traditional crafts and ceremonies, enlivening the conference with these colourful and moving expressions of ‘bula’ (also meaning ‘life’). The adoption of the Fijian and Pacific word ‘Talanoa’ to describe forthcoming facilitative discussions (the ‘Talanoa dialogue’) will hopefully ensure that this presidency leaves a lasting local impression on the UNFCCC process.
The attention to material culture continued on the conference fringe, with public art in the Rheinaue Park providing a meaningful connection between the Bula and Bonn Zones that underscored the urgent need for climate action. One striking piece created a ‘sign forest’ of rallying cries from past and current social and environmental campaigns. Suggesting the connection between these movements and the current climate crisis highlighted a sentiment I heard expressed throughout conference that ‘people power’ (and non-state actors) can give ‘confidence’ to governments to act on climate change. Another moving sculpture was ‘Unbearable’, by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, which depicted a polar bear impaled on an oil pipeline curved upwards to represent increasing carbon emissions. These works, together with the fascinating Wetterbericht (‘Weather Report’) exhibition at the nearby Bundeskunsthalle, reinforce the important role of the arts and cultural institutions in ‘supporting conversation about and action on’ climate change, as the editors of Curating the Future argue.
What When by British artist collective Stan’s Café. Photo by the author
These exhibits combined with reports of a spike in carbon emissions this year, to remind us of just how far we had come and how far we had to go. At the Bonn headquarters of the UNFCCC, an exhibition celebrated over two decades of international climate change diplomacy, with Paris the crowning achievement to date. But others argued we had not come far enough: Uppsala University’s Zennström Professor Kevin Anderson despaired at the failure of “his” generation to curb emissions and to convince governments of the urgent need for action. Speakers turned to the past to reinforce their message. For Anderson, only an international effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan (1948-51) would come even close to meeting the aims of the Paris agreement. Others pointed to the Montreal Protocol (1989) and its impacts as an example of what could be achieved through international cooperation. These examples left me uncertain as to how instructive they might be for our current condition. On the one hand, they buoy our hopes that change can happen, while on the other, their circumstances suggest the key to action is an agreed threat – whether communism or CFCs. Amid the diffusion of expertise and authority that currently typifies Western liberal democracies, just how we can reach that common ground remains to be seen.
At the very least, these references to historic examples provided temporal markers to accompany the conference’s emphasis on the materiality of climate change. Fiji’s presidency and the displays of material culture that accompanied many delegations reminded participants that climate change, while a planetary crisis, manifests at the local level. The ‘sea of islands’ of the Pacific, the littoral, coastlines, were all sites where climate change was manifesting. Together, their evocation also suggested the importance of the physical properties of the ocean in our understandings of the climate crisis.
Although there was certainly plenty of techno-optimism in the air, many speakers and observers emphasised the importance of engaging with other forms of knowledge. One project involved sharing the fire cultures of Aboriginal Australians with local peoples in Botswana. This initiative was one of many that reflected the meeting’s more inclusive approach regarding First Peoples, whose care for country was finally acknowledged as vital for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, meanwhile, lamented the impact of the Green Revolution on the ‘old ways’ of agricultural production. Both moments spoke to the urgency of redressing the troubling legacies of ‘improvement’ and Western hubris, and for the empowerment of local peoples at home and abroad.
For many participants, such empowerment lay in their faith. Church leaders from the Pacific, Californian Governor Jerry Brown, and former Irish President Mary Brown, for instance, all reflected on the importance of their faith to themselves and to their communities. Worship offered a culture of coping that connected them to each other and to a higher power, while providing an existential framework to make sense of environmental challenges. They and others invoked Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment as a source of inspiration and hope that emphasised climate justice for all.
COP23 was not without its contradictions. Just fifty kilometres away from the host city, for instance, is the site of one of Europe’s biggest sources of CO2 emissions: the large open-cast lignite coal mine near Cologne. Thousands of demonstrators converged there to urge the German government to phase out the mining activity and to deliver on its progressive climate rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Australian government proudly announced further contributions to climate change adaptation measures in Oceania, but were less inclined to discuss the future of the Adani coal mine or the health of the Great Barrier Reef. These examples alone speak to the complex knot of labour, energy and conservation that continue to stymie climate action.
Perhaps the greatest contradiction of them all was the sheer size of the meeting, and its accompanying carbon footprint. So great were the demands of hosting such a conference that Fiji was unable to hold the event at home. To the enormous infrastructure required for the meeting itself, add the toll of international travel of some twenty thousand delegates and observes – it all makes for an eye-watering sum. Many scholars in the sciences and humanities have long questioned the environmental ethics of conference travel (particularly by air), and are exploring alternative ways for meaningful and productive scholarly exchange. Geography certainly presents something of a challenge for Australian academics, but taking a more strategic and judicious approach to the frequency of my own travels will be an important start. Attending COP23 made it clear to me that learning how to live and work more lightly is a challenge I can no longer afford to ignore.
Katrin Kleemann, Rachel Carson Center
“June the 9th  was a day of clear weather, during which the cloud [north of the mountains] quickly rose higher and higher. In the evening a great downpour fell from it. The flow of the river Skaftá, a stream so great that at the ferry site here horses had to swim some seventy fathoms to cross it, and which ran eastward along the Síða area, now began to decrease substantially, however. On the 10th […] the river Skaftá had dried up entirely, except for the water emptying into it from local streams. […] On the 12th the weather was clear, with a wind from the south. Now the flood of lava spilled out of the canyon of the River Skaftá and poured forth with frightening speed, crashing, roaring and thundering. When the molten lava ran into wetlands or streams of water the explosions were as loud as if many cannon were fired at one time. At first this fiery flood followed the main course of the river, and then spread over the banks, and out over the older lava fields which stretch out on both sides […].”
Jón Steingrímsson (1728-1791), local reverend, who wrote a diary
In June 1783, the residents of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, an Icelandic village, watched as the water of their local river Skaftá vanished and, days later, was replaced by a “fiery flood” of lava. They could not have imagined that this event would have consequences halfway around the globe, all the way to eastern Africa. It suppressed the Nile’s summer floods and thereby helped cause a famine in Egypt, where agriculture depends on those floods. That summer, the 27-kilometer long Laki fissure, remotely located in the Icelandic highlands to the southwest of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier outside the Arctic, began an eight-month-long eruption. It released the largest amount of lava of any eruption in the last millennium, as well as huge quantities of sulfur dioxide, fluorine, and other gases.
The consequences would be catastrophic for Iceland’s population. The eruption did not kill anyone directly, but Laki's gases, especially the fluorine, poisoned the fields and thereby killed a large percentage of Iceland's cattle, horses, and sheep. The people of Iceland, deprived of their main food source, soon suffered malnourishment and starvation. These “hardships of the mist“ - today remembered as móðuharðindin - lasted until 1785, and claimed the lives of about a fifth of Iceland's population. Some 10,000 people perished.
This image shows the position of Iceland and the direction in which the dry fog was blown; it also shows the position of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the three major volcanoes in Iceland. The Laki fissure is just southwest of the Vatnajökull ice shield. This map was created by Katrin Kleemann and is built upon map materials from Gingko Maps, which are licensed under a CC BY 3.0 license.
In the rest of Europe, a strange sulfurous-smelling "dry fog" lingered for around two months. The levels of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere were comparable to present-day extreme air pollution events. In France and England, contemporaries reported sore eyes, skin irritations, respiratory problems, and damage to vegetation. Today, this dry fog is referred to as volcanic smog, or “vog,” and we know it can worsen cardiorespiratory illnesses. Volcanologist Anja Schmidt has used climate models to simulate what would happen if a Laki-style eruption occurred today. She found that excess mortality - that is, deaths that would not have occurred otherwise - would be 142,000 deaths within a year of the eruption.
In 1783, the news of a volcanic eruption in Iceland reached Europe only in September, after the fog had vanished. It took another decade for an Icelandic expedition to find the Laki fissure, and roughly one century for scientists to connect the dots between the eruption and the dry fog it caused. It would not be as long, however, before even bigger eruptions would have still more destructive consequences for human lives and livelihoods.
Volcanic eruptions can cause climate change if they release large amounts of sulfur dioxide high into the stratosphere. Sulfur dioxide oxidizes into sulfuric acid aerosols, which reflect incoming solar radiation. The troposphere, which is the atmospheric layer in which we live and in which our airplanes fly, experiences cooling, whereas the stratosphere, the layer above the troposphere, which starts at 18 km near the equator and around 9-13 km in the high latitudes, heats up. Other gases released from eruptions, such as carbon dioxide, are greenhouse gases and contribute to the warming of the planet. Yet overall, big eruptions that send sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere can cause profound, if relatively short-lived, cooling.
The biggest eruption in recent centuries was that of Tambora in 1815. It reached a 7 on the volcanic explosivity index (VEI), a logarithmic scale from 0 to 8 in which each level registers a tenfold increase in explosivity (measured in volume of ejecta and eruption height). By contrast, the eruption of the Laki fissure "only" reached a 4. Tambora exploded in present-day Indonesia, at a tropical latitude where trade winds - the persistent easterly winds north and south of the equator - helped to spread its aerosols around the globe.
Thanks to this global dispersal, evidence of tropical volcanic eruptions can be found in Greenland and Antarctica. Glaciologists study layers of compressed snow and bubbles of preserved air in ice cores to reconstruct the climate of the past. In the cores, they also find layers of ash, tephra, and gases such as sulfur - byproducts of volcanic eruptions - which help them to date the ice layers. High latitude eruptions such as the Laki fissure eruption only deposit ash and tephra in one hemisphere.
Tambora’s impact on Earth's climate was magnified as the volcano erupted in the aftermath of a very strong eruption in 1809 (VEI 6), which has not yet been localized. Both eruptions occurred in a period of low solar activity known as the Dalton Minimum (ca. 1790-1830). In 1816, Tambora therefore brought a bitterly cold "year without summer" to the Northeastern United States, as snow and frost ruined crops as late as June. Cooler temperatures and heavy rains also plagued Ireland and the rest of Europe, which helped provoke famine. Tambora also delayed the summer monsoon in India, where unseasonal and torrential rain helped cause flooding, crop failures, famine, and ultimately a cholera epidemic.
The graphic also shows that several volcanic eruptions can occur at around the same time, increasing their effect on the climate and thus their impact on societies. A series of volcanic eruptions coincided with the massive 1257 Samalas eruption in today’s Indonesia, for example, and the 1458 Kuwae eruption in today’s Vanuatu. Eruptions in quick succession, including in 1595 (Nevado del Ruiz in today’s Colombia) and 1600 (Huaynaputina in today’s Peru), caused a June-July-August temperature anomaly between 1600 and 1609.
In 2012, Gifford H. Miller was the lead author of an article that argued that large volcanic eruptions in the late thirteenth century might have initiated the abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age, which was then sustained for six centuries by so-called feedback loops between the ocean, sea ice, and the atmosphere. The climate system on Earth is sensitive to change and different parts of the system, solar radiation, sea ice, cloud cover, wind and ocean currents, are interconnected. One important feedback loop is the albedo effect, which relies on the fact that a white surface, such as ice, reflects more sunlight back into space than a dark surface, such as the ocean. When a series of strong eruptions at the beginning of the Little Ice Age cooled the global climate, sea ice and therefore the albedo effect increased, the Earth absorbed less solar radiation, and average global temperatures began a long and sustained decline. The resulting climatic shift was then reinforced by a series of large eruptions around 1458. Changes in solar radiation, Earth's rotation, and major patterns of oceanic and atmospheric circulation may also have contributed to the cooling, but volcanic eruptions were most to blame.
The biggest concern of our present time is anthropogenic climate change and global warming. Interestingly, global warming is actually increasing the chances of volcanism in the cold parts on Earth. In many cold places, such as Iceland, there still are large ice shields, reminders of the last Ice Age, which are melting away in a warming world. The melting of these heavy ice shields takes away a weight, which causes an uplifting process of the land below, called the postglacial rebound effect. In volcanically active regions, the ice shields were resting on top of magma chambers, with the decrease of weight the magma chambers can produce more magma and grow, and thus making a volcanic eruption more likely than before. In most extreme cases, the constant melting of Iceland’s glaciers could lead to an Eyjafjallajökull 2010 size eruption every seven years.
Even a large volcanic eruption and a short-term cooling, similar to the Pinatubo eruption of 1991, would not change this warming trend in the long run. New research suggests that even a Tambora style eruption in 2085 would likely not offset global warming simply because the oceans will be considerably warmer than they were in 1815. Another recent paper by lead author Ingo Bethke revises climate models by including sixty potential but fictional, large eruptions over the course of the twenty-first century. Most models actually ignore the potential of such eruptions. Yet the paper concludes that future eruptions are “unlikely to mitigate long-term anthropogenic climate change.”
Today, in our warming world, there are international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions to tackle anthropogenic climate change. Yet some scientists are also exploring ways to alter the climate through geoengineering, in order to stop the anthropogenic warming spiraling out of control. There are two different geoengineering categories: the first involves the removal of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels from the atmosphere, while the second involves managing solar radiation. Schemes in this second category would initiate a process of making the planet absorb less solar radiation to offset the consequences of the large-scale fossil fuel emissions of the recent past and present.
Geoengineers pursuing projects in this secondary category have been inspired by the cooling consequences of volcanic eruptions. However, the onset of the Little Ice Age, and the Nile floods that accompanied the small Icelandic eruption in 1783, both reveal the risks of such geonengineering schemes. The climate system is interconnected and incredibly sensitive to change. Reproducing the effects of a large volcanic eruption is both risky and dangerous, since we cannot know all the implications and potential consequences of such an endeavor. The long history of volcanic disasters therefore provides a warning for our warmer future.
Selected Works Cited:
Bethke, Ingo, Stephen Outten, Odd Helge Otterå et al. “Potential Volcanic Impacts on Future Climate Variability.“ Nature Climate Change 7 (2017): 799-805.
Cole-Dai, Jihong, David G. Ferris, Alyson L. Lanciki, et al. “Two Likely Stratospheric Volcanic Eruptions in the 1450s C. E. Found in a Bipolar, Subannually Dated 800 Year Ice Core Record.“ Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 118 (2013):7459-7466
Courtillot, Vincent. “New Evidence for Massive Pollution and Mortality in Europe in 1783-1784 may have bearing on global change and mass extinctions.” Comptes Rendus Geoscience 337 (2005): 635-637.
D’Arcy Wood, Gillen. Tambora. The Eruption that Changed the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Fasullo, J. T., R. Tomas, S. Stevenson, et al. “The Amplifying Influence of Increased Ocean Stratification on a Future Year Without a Summer.“ Nature Communications 8 (2017). Doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-01302-z
Grattan, John, M. Durand, and S. Taylor. „Illness and Elevated Human Mortality in Europe Coincident with the Laki Fissure Eruption.“ In Volcanic Degassing, edited by Clive Oppenheimer, D. M. Pyle, and J. Barclay, 401-414. London: The Geological Society of London, Special Publication 213, 2003
Grattan, John, Roland Rabartin, Stephen Self, and Thorvaldur Thordarson. “Volcanic Air Pollution and Mortality in France 1783-1784.“ Comptes Rendus Geoscience 337, no. 7 (2005): 641-651
Lavigne, Franck, Jean-Philippe Degeai, Jean-Christophe Komorowski, et al. “Source of the Great A.D. 1257 Mystery Eruption Unveiled, Samalas Volcano, Rinjani Volcanic Complex, Indonesia.“ PNAS 110, no. 42 (2013): 16742-16747.
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Dr. Sam White, Ohio State University.
In August 1559, the aspiring conquistador Tristán de Luna y Arellano brought some five hundred soldiers and a thousand colonists from New Spain to a settlement on Pensacola Bay, Florida, which he declared “the best port in the Indies.” The viceroy of New Spain reported to the king “the port is so secure that no wind can do them any damage at all.” Even as he wrote, a hurricane was entering the Caribbean, poised to devastate Puerto Rico. A week later, it roared into Pensacola Bay.
Tristán de Luna had no experience of tropical storms that could overwhelm even the strongest harbors. He had left all the settlement’s supplies aboard his ships in the bay. Food, clothing, arms, and armor all went down to the bottom of the sea with the wreck of his largest vessels. Only two small boats survived to take the sad news back to the viceroy in Mexico City. Within months, the colony unraveled amid hunger, exposure, infighting, and Native American resistance. When the survivors were finally evacuated, they came home complaining of Luna’s erratic leadership and the region’s “bad climate.”
Despite the scale of his expedition, and its chance to change the history of colonial America, few Americans today have even heard of Tristán de Luna. On the whole, that first century of European explorations and colonizing ventures in North America remains largely forgotten among the American public, more legend or Disney storytelling than real substance. That forgetfulness is a shame for two reasons, as I’ve come to learn my research. First, the real stories of those early expeditions are a lot more fascinating than the Disney version. Second, they present object lessons in the challenges of climate change that could be surprisingly relevant today.
Like many historians who study past climate and weather, I stumbled across my topic – the climate history of North America - by accident. As a graduate student, more than a decade ago, I was preparing a dissertation on the suitably obscure topic of agrarian crises in early modern Anatolia. What I discovered was that the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled the whole Eastern Mediterranean, had been unprepared for the onset of the coldest and (in that region) the driest phase of the Little Ice Age, from the late 1500s to late 1600s. Freezing winters and droughts, harvest failures and the death of livestock brought famines and undercut provisioning systems that the empire needed to supply its cities and armies. Soldiers mutinied; peasants and pastoral tribes rose up in rebellion; rural populations perished or fled; and the empire barely survived the chaos.
Published just as the Syrian civil war began, my first book, The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, could have been a parable about the dangers of climate-driven conflict. Nevertheless, I was aware of the differences as well as the parallels between past and present. Neither the Ottoman crisis then nor the Syrian crisis now can be reduced to just climate change. Climate vulnerabilities have changed a lot in four centuries, in no small part because people in Ottoman times didn’t know that they were living through climate change. What we now recognize as the Little Ice Age was to them just a series of unforeseeable disasters. Today global warming is a much-discussed topic, and we all (should) know that climates are changing. Our challenge is how to imagine our future climates and adapt to them. So I wanted to find another historical example with parallels to our present situation.
That became one motivation to write a new book (left) about climate and colonial North America. When Europeans first came to the New World they weren’t expecting a change of climates. Received wisdom was that climates were more or less the same everywhere along the same latitudes. However, experience from the time of Columbus onward revealed that the Americas had different weather patterns and different seasons, even on the same parallels. The tropics were not the uninhabitable “Torrid Zone” that ancient authors had supposed them to be, while the continental seasons of North America turned out to be much more variable than in the maritime climates of Western Europe. The challenge for Europeans was to make sense of that change in climates and plan their expeditions accordingly. They had to decide where to explore or settle, what clothes to bring and crops to plant, often based on nothing more than rumors, hearsay, or passing observations.
Planners and promoters of these expeditions tended to fill the gaps in their knowledge with self-serving rationalizations. Early voyages in search of a Northwest Passage over Canada epitomized the problem. Every encounter with extreme cold or sea ice could be explained away as some local aberration or accident. Similar rationalizations led Spaniards to look for Mediterranean conditions and a “new Andalusia” in Georgia and the Carolinas, and inspired English visions of silk, spices, and sugar in Virginia and even New England.
For this reason, early European explorers and colonists were sure to be disappointed with the climates of North America. What turned disappointment into disaster were the extreme conditions typical of the Little Ice Age. On examining the range of proxy and written evidence for North American climates, I found the same sort of anomalies that caused trouble for the Ottoman Empire. The epic drought and extreme cold during Jamestown’s “starving time” of 1609-10 is only the most famous example. In the 1540s, Spanish expeditions in California, the Southwest, and Southeast all encountered freezing winters with heavy snows where they would rarely be found today.
Then from the late 1500s to the turn of the 17th century, a series of large volcanic eruptions brought global temperatures lower still. In 1601, for instance, the Rio Grande froze over near today’s Albuquerque; frost and drought brought famine to the Pueblos; and Juan de Oñate’s conquest of New Mexico nearly collapsed from hunger and desertions. French settlers in New England and Canada perished in the long winters that decade, and the little-remembered English colony at Sagadahoc, Maine gave up in 1608 after less than a year, its “hopes . . . frozen to death” in the words of one contemporary.
Cold and drought, as well as storms, afflicted colonial expeditions in different ways. Crops failed and animals died. Diseases spread from exposure, poor water supplies, and malnutrition. Long winters without fresh food brought scurvy. Supply ships were lost when needed most. Competition for food and fuel engendered conflict between European invaders and Native Americans, who also had to adapt to Little Ice Age conditions.
Yet evolving perceptions of North America’s climates were just as consequential as realities. Years or even decades of experience with parts of the continent did not always translate into realistic appraisals of their climates or accurate planning. Sometimes when the high hopes of early expeditions met the shock of unexpected extremes, they gave way to exaggerated disparagement and despair. Around the 1570s, after decades of disappointment, Spanish officials began to dismiss the whole of La Florida (today’s Southeastern United States) as “worthless,” and the near collapse of Spanish New Mexico left a similarly negative impression among officials in Mexico and Spain.
The failure of the Sagadahoc colony killed interest in New England for over a decade: “the country esteemed as a cold, barren, mountainous, rocky desert,” in John Smith’s words. Settlers in the Jamestown colony, however, refused to acknowledge Virginia’s environmental challenges. Their leaders blamed any problems on the colonists themselves and insisted the region was as temperate and fertile as anywhere in Europe. They became, in a sense, America’s first climate change deniers, sending thousands of colonists to early graves across the Atlantic.
The climatic vulnerabilities of the modern world may bear little resemblance to the struggles of isolated colonies four or five centuries ago. But human psychology has probably changed much less. It is easy now, as it was back then, to embrace denial or despair. It is a lot harder to adjust expectations, make new investments, or accept a different way of life than the ones we’re used or have planned on.
With Hurricane Harvey, the Houston area has just experienced its third so-called 500-year precipitation event in three years—and while it would be a mistake to write off the future of a city like Houston, it would be equally mistaken to imagine it can keep on going the way it has for the last generation. As we rebuild around Houston (and the next city to get flooded, and the one after that) it could help to compare ourselves to the early European colonists of North America. Even if we rebuild on the same locations, climatically speaking, global warming means we, too, have crossed into a new world.
Dr. Laura Eerkes-Medrano, University of Victoria.
Global climate change brings with it local weather that communities and cultures have difficulty anticipating. Unpredictable and socially impactful weather is having negative effects on the subsistence, cultural activities, and safety of indigenous peoples in Arctic communities. Since 2013, Professor David Atkinson and his team at the University of Victoria have been working with Inuvialuit communities in Tuktoyaktuk, Ulukhaktok, and Sachs Harbour. The main goal is to understand how impactful weather is affecting residents’ subsistence activities, particularly when they are on the water. The project involves site visits, interviews, and regular phone calls with residents.
Inuvialuit residents regularly observe the waves, winds, snow, and ice conditions that interfere with their hunting, fishing, camping, and other subsistence and cultural activities. In this project, communities identify specific weather events that impact their activities. These events are then linked to the broader atmospheric patterns that cause them. Summaries of the events will be provided to Environment Canada to hopefully assist with the forecasting process.
By taking this approach, the project links Western scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge to generate insights into how climate change is affecting Inuvialuit activities in the Canadian Arctic. An oversight committee has been established in each community to give direction to the project. This oversight committee includes representatives from each of the main community organizations, which ensures that the respective organizations provide direction to the project and advise on how to engage residents and communities.
While the focus of the project is activities on the water, interviews with residents have shed light on a number of other impacts on their culture and subsistence activities. During a team’s site visit to Tuktoyaktuk in April 2016, the mayor, Darrell Nasogaluak, a member of the oversight committee, told me that “in the past, people were good at weather forecasting because they would observe the weather daily. Very few people today observe the weather as our forefathers did in the past, [who] would go out and look around and be able to predict the weather accurately. Now most people work Monday to Friday and only go out on Saturday and Sunday. Their only reference for what the weather will be like is the Environment Canada weather forecast, which is often not very accurate.”
Since they have only two days for outdoors activities, residents often go out even if the weather forecast is not very good. Their weather observations consist of taking a picture. Darrell Nasogaluak mentioned that in the past, people would remember what the weather was like and make connections to how it was on the preceding days. Residents would think about changes in wind direction and try to understand these changes and link them to potential causes.
“I would go out and I would ask someone what direction the thunders would be coming from, and they would know without looking at the window,” Darrell said. “Or I would ask when was the first storm this year and they would remember when it was in December. They would just have that knowledge. Now we go out and ‘click’ [take a photo] and don’t remember what it was like yesterday, and there is nothing to build on. That is how people are observing weather today.”
On a larger scale, people have observed changes in timing and duration of storms. In Tuktoyaktuk, residents mentioned that big storms at the end of August and beginning of September are becoming more common. They cause stronger waves and affect their caribou hunt, as residents use their boats to go to the calving grounds at this time of the year.
One resident, Rita Green, explained that stronger waves have forced her to take part in the seal hunt, while her husband handles the boat. In the past, “only men hunted for seals, and these roles are changing,” she said during an interview in 2014. She also mentioned that on July 8 2017, she and her family faced strong west winds on their way back from Hendrickson Island, where they were hunting belugas, to Tuktoyaktuk. She said that it was very hard to navigate the 19-foot boat that she and three other family members were on. “It was so windy that waves were coming into the boat,” she said, “and we had to throw out some mutkuk and meat” to keep the boat stable.
During a phone call on July 8 2017, Vernon Amos, a resident of Sachs Harbour, said that spring 2017 camping activities in Egg River, which traditionally take place in May, were affected both by a lack of snow on the ground and by rivers running high with melt water. He added that winter blizzards were formerly not that common, but this past winter the community experienced one blizzard after another, and larger than usual amounts of snow.
By the end of April, warmer temperatures and strong winds caused the snow to melt quickly, which made it difficult to go camping using a snowmobile. On the way back from camping, residents had a hard time crossing the rivers. In the past these rivers would have been frozen, but now they were running high with water from melted snow.
Hunters in Sachs Harbour are concerned about the riverine erosion and permafrost degradation. As the permafrost dries it becomes very hard, which makes it difficult to travel by snowmobile. Another concern is the potential increase in tourism, particularly cruise ship activity, which could negatively affect caribou migration. On a positive note, the community’s fuel consumption during the winter of 2016 was 20 percent less than average, according to residents.
In Ulukhaktok, residents are concerned about the changes in winds and sea ice thickness. The sea ice used to form in October or November, but in the winter of 2016 it did not form until mid-December. With warmer temperatures the ice has less time to form, which makes it thinner and causes it to melt earlier. Residents used to go duck hunting, an important springtime subsistence activity, by driving their snowmobiles to cracks on the sea ice that ducks follow, and then driving another ten miles to gather duck eggs. One resident recounted how his father would take the snowmobile in July to go duck hunting. Now residents feel lucky if they can still use snowmobile for this activity in June. In 2017, residents had to take their boats instead.
Storm winds are also getting more intense. Where residents used to experience 30 to 50 km/h winds during storms, now the winds are reaching speeds of 50 to 70 km/h. People need to take more precautions while traveling. If the wind starts to blow while they are traveling by snowmobile, the sea ice can be very dangerous. Leads will open, and the east wind will take the ice away from the shore. according to residents interviewed during the spring of 2016.
There is now a great deal of information on how weather and in turn weather trends affect Inuvialuit activities on the water. This project is revealing that the impact of changing weather patterns is also felt across cultural and subsistence pursuits, and residents of the Arctic are having to adapt. Climate change is already affecting Inuvialuit lives in profound ways.
This project was funded by the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR).
Christopher S. Kelly, Brown University, The Dwight-Englewood School.
The Lukonzo word [spoken by the Bakonzo people] for their place, Rwenzururu, first misheard and mis-transcribed by H.M. Stanley in 1889, means the Place of Snow; and whether it is the reality or the symbol, Nzururu, snow is and remains the presiding deity.
Mount Emin. Mount Baker. Mount Stanley. It is rare for a location to excite so many disparate sensibilities, but the post-colonial scholar, glaciologist, botanist, and climate scientist find themselves welcome bedfellows in the Rwenzori Mountains in tropical central Africa, straddling the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Even as far afield in time and space as ancient Greece, philosophers trafficked in rumors that the Nile Headwaters hosted Ptolemy’s snow-capped “Mountains of the Moon.” Equally famous today is the gigantism reached by floral species of heathers, senecios, helichrysums, and lobelias — some reaching heights of 12 meters.
Though far-flung from Eurasian loci of global power and empire, the mountains were named in ways that emblemize the crossroads of colony and metropole, from the brutal journalist-colonist Sir Henry Morton Stanley to Emin Pasha himself. More recently, the Rwenzururu separatist movement has been arguably the most persistent such conflict in post-colonial Africa. In this piece, I will illuminate the cultural significance of the mountains and glaciers within African and European history to contextualize the deep impact accompanying today’s rapid climatic changes. Admittedly, my motivations were aroused by close proximity to scientists presently working on the Rwenzori glacial and climate history—specifically, by a recent study just this year, which suggests that the scientific community may have grossly underestimated potential temperature change over these high mountains under current global warming (Loomis et al., 2017).
The Roads to Rwenzururu
Histories in brief are precarious enough to begin on most continents, let alone our ancestral birthplace. But here, it suffices to relay the most recent peopling of the Rwenzori region, its foothills, and the Semliki Valley in the modern eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Beginning in the 7th century and continuing to just prior to the colonial period, waves of emigration out of the Sudan populated the Semliki Valley. Subsequent migration to the mountains seem to have coincided with environmental pressures, for example in the 1880s and 1890s when disease, drought, and state-level violence plagued the Semliki. Indeed, contrary to early colonial musings, the isolation of the modern Bakonzo people—the predominant tribe on the eastern flanks of the Rwenzori— is not ancient, but was instead prompted by an ascendant Toro state propped up by British colonial rule (located east of the mountains) and the massive loss of life due to warfare and disease in the Busongora plains and the Semliki Valley (adjacent lowlands) (Syahuka-Muhindo, 2007).
Today, the Bakonzo people primarily farm the eastern slopes. This practice signifies a split between the Bakonzo and other denizens of the Lakes region. Indeed, the economic consequences constitute one lens through which to understand the eventual unrest of the 20th century. One can trace the divergence back to the emergence between 800 and 1300 CE of specialized herding and banana cultivation in the Great Lakes region. These revolutions may have had an environmental origin, because dry periods would have forced pastoral productivity out of otherwise marginal land (Pennacini, 2007). Subsequently, new modes of production translated into farmer-herder client relationships for much of the broader Lakes region save the Bakonzo, Banande, and other nearby groups for whom the high altitude was not conducive to pastoralism.
When the British Protectorate of Uganda resurrected the Kingdom of Toro, the Bakonzo people were reluctant to enter the de facto monetary economy in a subservient position, and tensions flared. In combination with rampant disease in the early 20th century, a crippling British tax system, and exclusion from advancement within scholastic colonial education, conditions deteriorated to the point where Bakonzo gave flight. This exodus led many across the border to the Belgian Congo—a chilling punctuation mark given King Leopold II’s rightly earned infamy as purveyor of mass terror and slave-based economy in the Congo Free State (Hochschild, 1999). When the situation in the Rwenzori became untenable, the Bakonzo rebellion broke out against the Toro polity in the 1920s and 1960s. This culminated when the Rwenzori peoples unilaterally declared independence from Uganda in 1962 (Pennacini, 2007).
More than Mountains
For imperialists setting their eyes on them for the first time, the Rwenzori mountains prefigured into an already circumscribed map of geographical, cultural, and racial mythos. In the voracious Zeitgeist of late 19th century colonial ambition, the search for the mythical “single origin” of the Nile River became a quest not only to solve a long-standing geographical mystery, but to identify the origins of Western civilization (Wittenberg, 2007). Simon Schama clarifies that “rivers took on metaphor and coursed “as lines of power and time carrying empires from source to expansive breadth”(Schama, 1995).
When Henry Morton Stanley “discovered” the Rwenzori mountains in 1888, he took great scientific pains to show that they were indeed the primeval source of the Nile, and couched even their cultural surroundings within ancient Egypt. This would be an inexplicable falsehood without the context of European conceptions of Africa as a world apart, dark and barren and uniquely outside of civilization, and the mythological backstory in which the Rwenzori were already, in the minds of learned Europeans, connected to their own cultural development in antiquity. In other documents from the time period, “white snow” in “Darkest Africa” (the title of Stanley’s reports documenting his traverse) was irreconcilable without invoking separate geographical and cultural provenance (Stanley, 1890; Wittenberg, 2007). The first European woman to reach the alpine zone, Ruth Fisher, described Rwenzori as “the one unsullied and impregnable witness of holiness and purity to God, in a land where darkness has reigned, and the storms of passion, vice, and barbarity have laid desolate” (Fisher, 1919). To Fisher, and many in the colonial project, the mountains represented superior benevolence and nobility, concordant with Europe and European ideals (Wittenberg, 2007).
Others related the cooler temperatures and grassy fields of the alpine environment more explicitly to good health —for Europeans, that is. A prominent work of colonial fiction from 1906 by the British politician, colonialist, and author John Buchan imagines that “[mountains] will be what Simla is to India, the workshop of government…they are in another climate, and give a tired man the moral and physical tonic he needs” (Buchan, 1906) Another passage from the same work expounds that:
If only each hot country had been given a habitable mountain, they would be the only places in the world to live in. On the ordinary upland you dominate the flat country because you are higher up, but here we also look down on the plain because we are wholesome and cool and sane and they are fevered. We are a lighthouse to the whole of Equatoria, and if there were fifty other lighthouses in the Empire there would be no tropical problem. (Buchan, 1906)
Conversely, for the inhabitants of the mountains, the symbolism is equally poignant, but unsurprisingly occupies a wholly different cosmology, focused on spirituality and fertility. The word Rwenzururu itself means roughly “the place of snow,” and some Bakonzo interpret the ice as the frozen sperm of the mountain-dwelling god Kitasamba (Pennacini, 2007). Central to this belief system is the fertilization of Earth and Konzo society by the yearly snowmelt (Pennacini, 2007). As such, the icy mountains themselves are inseparable from Bakonzo belief systems, especially their embitha —"that unspoken sense of unity and uniqueness” (Stacey, 2007). For those who have worked in the mountains with the Bakonzo people, it is easy to testify to the sanctity conferred on the snowscape.
Brown University paleoclimate scientist Jim Russell explained to me that:
Each time we visit the mountains our Bakonzo guides explain to us the rules of the mountains which are imbued with a respect for the space. No pointing, no whistling, no singing. Rules are especially strict when it comes to water: no bathing, and many times when we have gone out on a lake in a boat our guides will offer food to the waters. (Russell, 2017)
Two historical European depictions of Africa showing the Rwenzori before it was actually spotted by Europeans. On the left from 1513, Martin Waldseemuller shows the Greek-fabled Mountains of the Moon giving rise to the more northerly African rivers as the only geographic feature in “Dark Africa” (citing interpretation from (Wittenberg, 2007)). On the right is a reproduction (of unknown year to this author) of Ptolemy’s figure included in "Geographia." In this work, much of North Africa is complete, if incorrect, including the then-hypothesized Mountains of the Moon. It is intriguing to compare/contrast these maps in their detail and degree of conjecture.
Ice in Retreat
But the natural state of the region is in dramatic flux, primarily a result of human activity. These mountains, which loom over 5,000 meters (well over 16,000 feet), host equatorial glaciers that are in rapid decline; since 1900, East African glaciers have lost over 80 percent of their surface area (Hastenrath and Kruss, 1992; Thompson, 2002). The full social and natural ramifications of this loss are still not clear, but they could well be disastrous. Firstly, modern foreign tourism revolves around ice climbing and observing the glaciers. In 1991, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park was established, and the Bakonzo were banned from hunting in the mountains by the Ugandan state. In “exchange” for these restrictions, guides and porters for tourists entering the mountains were to be hired solely from the local communities on the mountain slopes, chief among them the Bakonzo (Russell, 2017). The disappearance of the glaciers may impact tourism in ways that call this agreement into question.
Secondly, glacier retreat is known to strongly impact water resources in some mountain glacier regions, such as the Andes (Baraer et al., 2012; Mark, 2008; Mark et al., 2010). Glaciers act like a dam, accumulating snow in the wet season and releasing it as meltwater in the dry season. This buffers against strongly seasonal flows. Glacier retreat in the Andes is associated with an increase in the seasonality of river flows and a slight increase in the mean flow rate (due to the melting of “ancient” ice). Recent research suggests that snowmelt may not impact local river flows that provide water to indigenous communities as much as it has in the Andean highlands (Taylor et al., 2009); nevertheless, changes to the alpine lakes and surrounding ecosystems are likely to occur given the combination of melting ice and warming (Panizzo et al., 2008).
Finally, local environmental risks, such as slash-and-burn techniques, exacerbate threats to an ecosystem already fragile to climate change, and pose a barrier to ecotourism endeavors. Recent disasters drive this point home, such as the fire outbreak on Mt. Rwenzori in 2012 and the subsequent Kilembe Flood of 2013 (IFRC, 2014; Misairi and Ninsima, 2012; UNESCO, 2012). In this case, the wildfires in the alpine zone weakened the water holding capacity of the upper mountain valleys, which then flooded into the lowlands during the next rainy season. In sum, this environmental “moment” and the future of the Rwenzori motivates scientific efforts to probe geological, glaciological, and historical records for patterns that have governed the history of ice and environment in the Rwenzori.
Learning from Past Climate Change
The last instance in Earth history to experience appreciable changes in temperature with rising CO2 was during the global thaw following our Earth’s most recent glacial time (~20,000 years ago continuing into the earliest Holocene ~11,000 years ago) (Clark et al., 2012), making that time slice a potentially helpful scientific analog. The Rwenzori Mountains are no exception. Moreover, scientists are interested in specifically how the past local climates and glacier extent of tropical high-elevation belts differed from the present under different background climatic conditions, and what lessons we might glean from those dynamics under the future regime of persistent global warming. Accordingly, scientific teams are actively working to understand both Rwenzori environmental change during across the “deglaciation” (warming following the glacial state), as well as the last glacial climate itself to probe differences that may inform understanding about the future (albeit a different sign of temperature/climate change). .
To study such past climates, scientists build “proxy” climate archives to reconstruct the extent of ice, but also the factors behind glacial expansion, namely temperature (cold) and precipitation (dry). Similarly, glacial retreat can result from warm temperatures or regionally wet episodes, or some combination thereof. Studies of Rwenzori glacial moraines—accumulations of glacial debris—as well as lake sediment records suggest that ice expanded during cooler and drier conditions at the same time as Earth’s last glacial maximum (Kelly et al., 2014). A new high-profile publication by Loomis et al. (2017) based on geochemical reconstructions of past lake temperatures at multiple elevations has revealed that this cool time was enhanced in the Rwenzori via amplified cooling with elevation during this global glacial maximum.
Uncovering recent changes in glacial extent has been perhaps even more fraught, since investigation requires deconstructing the colonial archive and the assumptions embedded in it—which even when approximately accurate, lack a long-term perspective. For example, the present episode of glacial retreat had been thought to commence in ~1880 due to the waning wet period in the latter half of the 19th century in the Great Lakes region, as well as the legacy of colonial observation, which intensified in the late 1880s (Hastenrath and Kruss, 1992; Mölg et al., 2003). But in 2008, a research group found that siliciclastic material in lakebed sediments across the Rwenzori region correlated with the glaciation of those lakes (Russell et al., 2009). Because siliciclastic content was more or less stable from 1200 until 1870, the scientists concluded that for multiple centuries, fluctuations in ice have been relatively small in comparison to those experienced today (Russell et al., 2009). In this way, the European records of shrinking ice are not at all indicative of “normal” conditions over the 800 years. Finally, the timing of initial retreat is crucial; 1870 falls in a regionally wet time in the Rwenzori, suggesting that assumptions about the timing of glacial retreat in the region made on the basis of late ninteteenth-century observations are inaccurate.
Replotted %siliciclastic data from Lakes Upper Kitandara and Lac du Speke, with permission. As a proxy for the extent to which a lake was glaciated, these records depict relative glacial stability in the centuries leading up to the present decline beginning ~1870 (fluctuations in the early part of the last millennium should be interpreted with caution; see original scientific work). (Russell et al., 2009)
Taken altogether, some consensus is emerging that Rwenzori glaciers are melting today mostly as a result of rising air temperature. A recent study has revealed that temperatures in the tropics increased more dramatically at high elevations compared to low elevations during the last glacial maximum (Loomis et al., 2017). If we can expect the same today, in our warming world, it would spell amplified warming in the high-altitude Rwenzori mountains—warming that the glaciers likely cannot withstand. Indeed, a prominent study of ice core records from Kilimanjaro gives tropical African glaciers only another ten years (Thompson, 2002).
Conclusion: Snow-Capped No More
An essay on the Rwenzori in the Western imagination concludes:
Ironically, the hopes of local Rwenzori communities are not only linked to the return of peace [following conflict in the Great Lakes region], but also a continuation of colonial myths about the Mountains of the Moon. In order to draw tourists and attract development, the Rwenzori will in all likelihood continue to be inscribed with a Western history that obscures local cultural knowledge, traditions, and histories.” (Wittenberg, 2007)
Climate change may call this obfuscating history and the tourism it promotes into question. As time passes, the disappearance of the glaciers will render Stanley’s “lofty mountain king, clad in its pure white raiment of snow” a more distant memory (Stanley, 1890). Just what this portends for Bakonzo cosmology, mountaineering, and tourism is today unclear. Yet it is no small irony that modern Rwenzori could face grave climate challenges from the conquest, dominion, and industrialization of the world by the Global North—the same processes that gave rise to a dependence on foreign capital in the first place in this unique mountain kingdom.
In article after article, academics, policy analysts, and journalists have told a similar story: climate change, by melting Arctic ice, is unlocking resources that could soon trigger war in the far north. They argue that the race to extract the vast reservoirs of oil and natural gas that lie under the vanishing ice – up to a quarter of the world’s undiscovered fossil fuel reserves, by some estimates – will likely provoke hostilities between Russia, the United States, and other nations with claims to the bonanza. The overall failure of early drilling efforts in the Arctic, it seems, is of little consequence.
These claims add a new twist to a vast and growing body of scholarship that links climate change to conflict. Academics working in this area often begin their work by showing that past climate changes reduced – rather than increased – the regional availability of some crucial resource, such as water, or grain, or fish spawning grounds. They then use diverse methods to trace the destabilizing social and political consequences of these resource shortages. Environmental historians, for example, have argued that falling temperatures and changing precipitation patterns in the seventeenth century led to poor grain harvests and famines that provoked rebellions in diverse societies the world over. More controversially, scholars in many disciplines have linked human-caused global warming to droughts that encouraged migration and ultimately conflict in twentieth-century sub-Saharan Africa. Far less attention has been directed at the ways in which more abundant resources might incite violence either within or between states.
In fact, those who make claims about the inevitably more violent nature of the future Arctic have rarely thought to consider the history of climate change and conflict in the far north. Yet violence in the Arctic has long coincided with volcanic eruptions and fluctuations in solar activity that altered regional temperatures and in turn the availability of crucial resources. In the early seventeenth century, for example, the Arctic cooled sharply and then warmed slightly just as Europeans discovered, hunted, and fought over bowhead whales off Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Oil, bones, and baleen from bowheads became crucial resources for the economies of England and the Dutch Republic.
Diverse manifestations of climate change in the Arctic and Europe influenced how easy bowhead whales were to hunt, the profits that could be fetched by their oil, the proximity of whalers to one another, and the ability of whalers to reach the far north. Skirmishes within and between whaling companies operating from rival European nations reveal that climate change can affect both the causes and the conduct of conflict in diverse ways, even in environments it transforms on a vast scale. There is nothing inevitable or simple about the ways in which climate change influences human decisions and actions.
This history would be hard to investigate without new climate reconstructions compiled by scholars in many different disciplines, using many different sources. In 2014, researchers drew from natural and textual sources to create a sweeping new reconstruction of average Arctic air surface temperatures over the past 2,000 years. It confirms that the Arctic was overall very cold in the seventeenth century, but also that it warmed slightly towards the middle and end of the century. Temperatures in the Arctic therefore roughly mirrored those elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere during the chilliest century of the “Little Ice Age,” a cooler climatic regime that endured for roughly six centuries. The extent and distribution of sea ice in the Arctic – the most important environmental condition that whalers coped with – would have responded to even subtle changes in average annual temperatures.
Yet these very big trends do not tell us exactly how climate change transformed environments around Svalbard. Local temperature trends do not always precisely mirror regional or global developments, and anyway the distribution and extent of Arctic sea ice registers more than just the warmth or chilliness of the lower atmosphere. Ice core and model simulation data both suggest that air surface temperatures around Svalbard were quite cool in the early seventeenth century and somewhat warmer in the middle of the century, at least in summer. Lakebed sediments, by contrast, suggest that glaciers across Svalbard actually retreated beginning in around 1600 owing to changes in precipitation, not temperature, which may have reduced the local frequency of storms that can break up sea ice. Moreover, sea surface temperatures – which also influence sea ice – were quite warm off the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, for much of the seventeenth century, although they were very cold off the northern coast.
Overall, it seems safe to conclude that, in the summer, temperatures around Svalbard roughly mirrored those of the broader Arctic in the seventeenth century. Warmer currents may have brought more nutrients to the region and probably reduced the extent of local sea ice, although a reduction in storm frequency would have preserved the ice that was there. In any case, most Arctic sea ice melts in the summer before reaching its minimum annual extent in the fall, which means that summer weather and currents had the greatest impact on the extent of ice in the Arctic north of Europe. Because sea ice retreated from Svalbard in the summer, it was also the crucial season for whaling.
If the local consequences of global climate changes can be counterintuitive – that warming current off Spitsbergen, for example – so too can human responses. One might assume that climatic cooling would have dissuaded explorers, fishers, and whalers from entering the Arctic. Instead, European sailors found and then started exploiting the environments on and around Svalbard in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, just as volcanic eruptions led to arguably the coldest point of the Little Ice Age in the Northern Hemisphere. In previous work, I have shown that climate changes in this period interacted with local environments to leave just enough sea ice in the Arctic north of Europe to redirect expeditions in search of an elusive “Northern Passage” to Asia. Dutch and English sailors struggling to find a way through the ice ended up discovering Spitsbergen and the many bowhead whales off its western coast. Bowheads are relatively docile, float on the surface when killed, and have very thick blubber that can be turned into oil. Beginning in 1611, they started attracting Dutch, English, and Basque whalers.
Other scholars have argued that cooling in the early seventeenth century led bowhead whales to congregate along more extensive sea ice near Spitsbergen, which made them easier to hunt for whalers. By contrast, whales dispersed as sea ice retreated in the warmer middle of the seventeenth century, which made them harder to hunt. There does seem to be a statistically significant correlation between ice core reconstructions and model simulations of summer temperatures around Spitsbergen on the one hand, and the annual whale catch on the other. Iñupiat whalers consulted by our own Bathsheba Demuth, however, report that bowheads in the Berring Sea are not social enough to gather in huge groups. Perhaps bowhead culture was different in the Atlantic corner of the Arctic when whale populations were much higher than they are today.
The apparent correlation between surface air temperatures and the whale catch around Spitsbergen provides our first point of entry into relationships between climate change and conflict in the far north. From the first years of whaling around Spitsbergen, two companies – the Dutch Northern Company, and the English Muscovy Company – emerged as the leading players in the Arctic whaling industry. The governments of England and the Dutch Republic had granted these companies monopolies on whaling operations, but they were resented by merchants and mariners who preferred to operate independently. After around 1625, as bowhead whales dispersed amid warming temperatures, competition between Dutch whalers devolved into piracy. Many conflicts involved whalers who sailed either for the Northern Company or for themselves, although even some Company whalers hid the best hunting grounds from one another. In these circumstances, the governing body of the Dutch Republic rescinded the monopoly of the Northern Company in 1642.
From the beginning, competition between English whalers assumed an even more brutal character. The Muscovy Company took an uncompromising stance towards English interlopers, who responded in turn. In 1626, for example, whalers aboard independently-owned vessels destroyed the Company’s station at Horn Sound, Spitsbergen, after they had been harassed by Company ships. Not surprisingly, petitions submitted to the English Standing Council for Trade in 1652 reveal that small groups of English merchants also sought to overturn the monopoly of the Muscovy Company. Individual merchants insisted that the Company could not adequately “fish” the territories over which it held a monopoly. The Company responded that whalers in the employ of those merchants had interfered with the activities of its sailors and stolen whales they had killed.
Warming temperatures that reduced the extent of pack ice and encouraged whales to disperse may well have encouraged competition and conflict between whalers belonging to the same nationality. Bizarrely, the whaling industry also responded to fluctuations in the supply of rape, linseed and hemp oils, which were less smelly substitutes to whale oil for fueling lamps or manufacturing soap, leather, or wax. Temperature and precipitation extremes that reduced the supply of vegetable oils naturally also increased the price of whale oils in the Dutch and English economies, and thereby the profitability of whaling. In the context of the Little Ice Age, the 1630s in particular were relatively warm across the Northern Hemisphere. The trusty Allen-Unger commodity database tells us that the price of linseed oil in Augsburg, for example, dropped sharply as average annual temperatures increased. Even the price of lamp oil – which would have also registered the price of whale oil – fell modestly in the same period. Could whalers in the 1630s and 1640s have vied with monopolistic companies just climate change both reduced the supply of their resource and increased its profitability?
We can sketch these relationships by mixing and matching different statistics from natural and textual archives. Detailed qualitative accounts written by whalers, however, reveal that climate influenced conflict in more complicated ways during the first decade of the Svalbard whaling industry. In that decade, whalers from several European nations – most importantly England and the Dutch Republic – employed experienced Basque whalers to kill bowhead whales, strip their blubber, and boil the blubber on the coast. Whalers would deploy boats from a mothership to kill small groups of whales. They would then establish temporary settlements on the coast to turn the blubber into oil that could be loaded into barrels and returned to the ship.
These techniques forced whalers from different nations to rove along the coast of Spitsbergen, which made it likely that they would encounter one another. Initially, the Muscovy Company falsely claimed that English explorers had found Spitsbergen, which meant that it alone had the right to hunt for whales off the island. The Dutch – who had actually discovered the island – insisted that whalers from all European nations should be allowed to fish off its coast. In 1613, a Dutch expedition under Willem van Muyden, the legendary “First Whaleman” of the Republic, reached Spitsbergen in late May and found the coast blocked by ice. After only two weeks, the retreating ice let his whalers enter a bay roughly halfway down the island, but a better-armed English fleet quickly spotted them. In subsequent weeks, the English harassed the Dutch whalers and stole much of their equipment and whale commodities. Yet the Dutch returned with naval escorts in 1614. After the English seized a Dutch ship in 1617, the Dutch arrived with overwhelming force in 1618 and killed several English whalers.
The worst skirmishes between Dutch and English whalers raged in years that were relatively warm across the Arctic and probably around Svalbard, despite the generally cooler climate of the early seventeenth century. In cold years, sea ice could have kept whalers working for different companies from lingering on the coast, where tensions simmered and eventually erupted into bloodshed. In any case, the Muscovy Company and the Northern Company eventually agreed to occupy different parts of Spitsbergen. The Dutch would claim the northwestern tip, where they established the major, fortified settlement of Smeerenburg: “blubber town.” The English, meanwhile, took the rest. The Dutch eventually benefited from being closer to the edge of the summer pack ice, where there were more whales to hunt.
Hostilities between the English and the Dutch in the volatile first decades of the Svalbard whaling industry convinced the Northern Company to keep a skeleton crew at Smeerenburg and nearby Jan Mayen island during the winter. If they could survive, they would keep Company infrastructure safe from springtime raids and provide valuable information about the region’s winter weather. In 1633/34, two groups of Dutch whalers overwintered at Smeerenburg and Jan Mayen. Regional summer temperatures may have been warming at the time, but winter temperatures across the Arctic were cooling, and 1633/34 was particularly cold. The Smeerenburg group survived the frigid temperatures and killed enough caribou and Arctic foxes to hold off scurvy. The Jan Mayen whalers endured until the spring, but they could not catch enough game to survive the ravages of scurvy. In 1634/35, the Northern Company tried again. This time, both groups died from scurvy, and the Smeerenburg whalers did not even make it to winter. Violent competition between whaling companies – plausibly influenced by warming summers – exposed whalers to a quirk in the climatic trends of the Little Ice Age in the Arctic: the big difference between summer and winter temperatures, relative to long-term averages.
Climate change also influenced hostilities between whalers by altering how easily they could reach the “battlefield” around Spitsbergen. In 1615, a year of typical chilliness during the Little Ice Age, the author of a Dutch whaling logbook reported that sea ice on June 7th blocked the crew’s progress towards Svalbard. The crew spotted a bowhead whale three days later, but ice kept them from pursuing. That evening, a storm rose just as they found themselves surrounded by sea ice. They tried to anchor themselves to an iceberg, but it shattered and would have destroyed their ship “had God not saved us.” The few surviving logbooks written by Dutch whalers also record trouble with ice in the warmer 1630s, yet it surely would have been harder to reach Svalbard and compete with English whalers in the first decade of the Arctic whaling industry.
Beginning in 1652, the Dutch Republic and England also embarked on hostilities in the North Sea region that would endure, with interruptions, until the Dutch invasion that launched the Glorious Revolution of 1688. During the three Anglo-Dutch Wars that raged in these decades, English and Dutch ordinance kept whalers from sailing to the Arctic or constructing new ships and equipment for the whaling industry. Sailors who might have served aboard whaling ships were urgently needed to crew the warships of the English and Dutch fleets. Many whalers also served as privateers, raiding merchant ships and convoys and then surrendering a share of the profits to their governments. Any whalers who set sail for the Arctic risked losing everything if discovered.
As I have written elsewhere, a cooling climate in the second half of the seventeenth century profoundly influenced naval hostilities between the English and Dutch fleets. By altering the frequency of easterly and westerly winds in the North Sea, it helped the English claim victory in the First Anglo-Dutch War but aided the Dutch in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars, as well as the Glorious Revolution. It probably shortened the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54) but lengthened the third war (1672-74). That, in turn, would mean that the manifestations of global climate change in the North Sea affected the opportunities for whalers to engage in hostilities in the Arctic.
After 1650, the character of hostilities between Arctic whalers changed dramatically. Cooling summer temperatures brought thick ice into the harbors of Spitsbergen, while the depletion of the bowhead whale population may have worsened the prospects of whaling near land. Whalers had to hunt further and further from the shore, and started processing their whales at sea. They abandoned settlements along the coast of Spitsbergen, which soon fell into ruin. Violence between whalers now took place exclusively at sea. The evidence is spotty, but privateers seem to have hunted whalers in the final decades of the seventeenth century. In 1692, Henry Greenhill, commissioner of the English navy at Plymouth, reported that two “Greenland Prizes” – whaling vessels captured off Spitsbergen – had been brought into harbor. Since England had allied with the Dutch Republic against France, these ships were probably French in origin.
The history of climate change, whaling, and violence in and around Svalbard during the seventeenth century is above all complicated, filled with surprising twists and turns. Climate change may have occasionally provoked violence, but it probably did so by reducing, rather than increasing, the accessibility of bowhead whales to whalers. More importantly and more certainly, it altered the character of confrontations between whalers in the far north. Moreover, its manifestations thousands of kilometers from the Arctic ended up having important consequences for hostilities in and around Svalbard.
These intricate relationships in the distant past should give us pause as we contemplate the warmer future in the Arctic. Global warming may indeed set the stage for war in the far north, but we have no way of knowing for sure. It is equally likely that climate change will provoke human responses that are hard to guess at present. In this case, we cannot use the past to predict the future, but we can draw on it to ask more insightful questions in the present.
Selected Works Cited:
Degroot, Dagomar. “Exploring the North in a Changing Climate: The Little Ice Age and the Journals of Henry Hudson, 1607-1611.” Journal of Northern Studies 9:1 (2015): 69-91.
Degroot, Dagomar. “Testing the Limits of Climate History: The Quest for a Northeast Passage During the Little Ice Age, 1594-1597.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History XLV:4 (Spring 2015): 459-484.
Degroot, Dagomar. “‘Never such weather known in these seas:’ Climatic Fluctuations and the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century, 1652–1674.” Environment and History 20.2 (May 2014): 239-273.
Hacquebord, Louwrens. De Noordse Compagnie (1614-1642): Opkomst, Bloei en Ondergang. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2014.
Hacquebord, Louwrens. “The hunting of the Greenland right whale in Svalbard, its interaction with climate and its impact on the marine ecosystem.” Polar Research 18:2 (1999): 375-382.
Hacquebord, Louwrens and Jurjen R. Leinenga. “The ecology of Greenland whale in relation to whaling and climate change in 17th and 18th centuries.” Tijdschrift voor Geschiendenis 107 (1994): 415–438.
Hacquebord, Louwrens, Frits Steenhuisen and Huib Waterbolk. “English and Dutch Whaling Trade and Whaling Stations in Spitsbergen (Svalbard) before 1660.” International Journal of Maritime History 15:2 (2003): 117-134.
Laist, David W. North Atlantic Right Whales: From Hunted Leviathan to Conservation Icon. Washington, DC: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
McKaya, Nicholas P. and Darrell S. Kaufman. "An extended Arctic proxy temperature database for the past 2,000 years." Scientific Data (2014). doi: 10.1038/sdata.2014.26.
Dr. Josh MacFadyen, Arizona State University
When Monsanto spent $1 billion in 2013 to purchase Climate Corporation, its climate data, and its algorithms for using machine learning to predict weather, everyone from farmers and insurance companies to technologists and The New Yorker concluded that agri-business believed the climate science consensus: climate change is real and it introduces real risks to business. One century earlier, another major Western agri-business (Archer-Daniels-Midland or ADM) produced their own cutting-edge weather and crop forecasts, mainly in an effort to reduce the risk of what it called “weather markets.” By investing in environmental knowledge production, these companies revealed how they understood both local environments and international climate sciences.
Historians know a great deal about early amateur and state organized meteorology and climatology, and a range of new works are emerging on the science of forecasting. However, the climate looks different when we examine it from the private sector. Business historians do so using company records and within the context of the firm. My study of the economy of knowledge in agri-business focuses on Archer-Daniels-Midland Linseed Company (ADM), a notoriously secretive company that started in Minneapolis and has since become one of the big five multinational firms in the agrifood sector. Its primary interest in the early twentieth century was not the highly-processed corn and soybean commodities it is known for today. Rather, ADM specialized in another oilseed altogether – flax.
Flax had changed from a European crop grown for linen to a predominantly American crop grown in the temperate grasslands of the northern Great Plains and the Argentine Pampas. It was produced mainly for its seed (linseed), which was pressed to make linseed oil, the principal ingredient in paint. Flax was very popular with farmers in the northern Plains, because it matured quickly and could be planted on newly broken fields on the frontier. ADM had relocated to Minneapolis precisely because of this growing western supply chain. When they got there, they realized they had a lot to learn about anticipating the weather and forecasting production in this harsh new environment.
The history of ADM’s response to price volatility, supply chain problems, and trade policies tells us about the way businesses understand climatology and develop environmental knowledge. Like the Climate Corporation, ADM was predominantly concerned with risk mitigation. And where there was risk there was profit. The linseed oil business included some of the leading names in the chemical sector, including Lyman Brothers in Montreal, the Rockefellars’ American Linseed Oil, Sherwin Williams, and Spencer Kellogg and Sons. These companies were major players, and they purchased flax seed from for their oil and paint operations from whatever part of the world would supply it. In the late nineteenth century, that was predominantly the northern Plains, but in the early twentieth century they found emerging markets in Argentina, Uruguay, and some older flax producing regions in Eastern Europe and India.
As a relative upstart, ADM found a niche in the globalizing industry by providing crop and other environmental information to the trade. The big players bought flax seed and flax seed futures in a massive grassland frontier (the Northern Great Plains, the Canadian Prairies, and the Argentine Pampas) with limited knowledge of those regions’ agroecosystems and even less about their climates. This article argues that crop knowledge was extensive and growing in the late nineteenth century, but climate knowledge was limited and retreating, because of underfunding and spurious theories about solar radiation. Meteorological forecasts were only good for 48 hours, and although Farmer’s Almanacs were very popular, their forecasting methods were secretive and studies have shown that they were really no more accurate than a coin toss.
In my study, I make two other conclusions based on a content analysis of the firm’s semi-public market reports circulated between 1911 and 1925, with a five-year gap starting in 1918. The first is that ADM created an early version of the Climate Corporation, focusing its attention on the growing conditions and probable outcomes of the flax crop. The records show that the company virtually ignored the European and Indian crops, knowing that those would likely enter UK markets before reaching their North American clients. Most of their weekly synopses were about crop conditions in the northern Plains, drawing from a network of crop agents, elevator companies, and other intermediaries such as state flax scientists. However, their interest in Canadian conditions decreased, and they increasingly focused on Argentina over this period. By the 1920s, ADM was reporting on Argentina almost as frequently as it mentioned the US.
The second finding was that the futures markets were more closely connected to natural systems than some historians of these “incorporeal” commodities have argued. Information systems like ADM’s circulars developed almost real time networks of crop and climate knowledge, but after a certain point these agri-businesses, conceded that futures trading was “purely a weather proposition.” Commodity futures became highly risky as overlapping harvest seasons approached, linseed oil producers depleted their reservoirs, and buyers attempted to determine which crop and weather forecasts were most tenable. This is precisely where we would expect to hear corporations arguing over comparative meteorological systems and the reliability of Almanacs, but these topics were almost never mentioned.
ADM realized that in the period between sowing and harvesting, the price of flax was “a weather market.” Their records show that businesses in the grain and oilseed sector created extensive knowledge networks to gather crop and some climate information in almost real time. Unlike the meteorological offices or the almanacs, ADM aimed for the respect of a much smaller business circle, and they therefore maximized data and minimized predictions. They mentioned US weather in about half of their circulars (less for other countries) and they predicted weather in very few of those cases. They were more bullish with crop forecasts, but the circulars show that they rarely reported weather forecasts. The weather that they did report was current conditions, and it was mainly in regards to the Northern Great Plains crop during the critical maturing and harvest months (June–September).
As my longer article on ADM’s response to uncertain climates outlines, the company was deeply invested in place, and its business decisions were shaped in part by its longer commitment to the Northern Great Plains. Its larger role in the knowledge economy was influenced by its position on crop and climate science; the company distrusted government crop forecasts and disregarded meteorological forecasts. ADM’s respectability depended on accuracy, but as the almanacs (and recent politicians) show, you don’t need to be accurate to be popular.
When agri-business ignored early twentieth century climatologists and created their own knowledge products, they signaled a distrust in science that proved to be well founded. In recent decades, we are seeing a completely supportive message from the private sector. Business signals its knowledge about the environment at many scales, from local family farms to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. When Reagan-era Secretary of State, George P. Shultz, and Climate Leadership Council president, Ted Halstead, recently advanced what they call The Business Case for the Paris Climate Accord, their message was simple. Since top US businesses support the Paris climate agreement, Donald Trump should embrace the broad consensus of climate scientists and remain at the table in Paris. Granted, their argument ignored the ethical and other humanitarian reasons for stopping runaway climate change and mitigating the harmful effects it will have on the biosphere, but when even corporations like Monsanto are spending billions to mitigate the risks associated from climate change it’s time politicians listened to the deafening message coming from all sectors.
Joshua MacFadyen, “Long-range forecasts: Linseed oil and the hemispheric movement of market and climate data, 1890–1939,” Business History 59:7 (October 2017). Published online, April 2017. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00076791.2017.1304915
Dr. Kent Linthicum, Arizona State University
The recent bicentenary of the Year without a Summer (1816) has brought that unusual intersection of geological forces, changing climate, and human history into focus again. The radical cooling brought on by Tambora’s eruption seems especially significant as modern societies face their own dramatic climate change, albeit in the form of radical warming brought on by industrialization.
Tambora’s eruption in 1815 is the most recent seven on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). The VEI scale rates eruptions from zero to eight. VEI sevens erupt roughly one-hundred cubic kilometers of material and occur infrequently: the next most recent seven, after Tambora, erupted in 1257. The large amount of ejected material from Tambora’s eruption cooled Europe by 1-2 degrees Celsius on average. The cooling caused the subsequent summer of 1816 to be so cold that it was hardly a summer at all. In an era of increasingly warm summers, a cooler one might sound ideal, but chilly weather led to a food shortages and starvation throughout the northern hemisphere.
Between April and May 1816, "Bread or Blood" riots erupted across East Anglia as the price of bread surpassed the wages of agricultural and industrial laborers. While food riots had a long history in Britain, industrialization, enclosure, and globalization increasingly safeguarded the nation's food supply by the early nineteenth century.
The Bread or Blood riots reveal that climatic shocks could still provoke famine and rioting in the nineteenth century, even in the country that should have been least vulnerable to them. They also show that contemporary media depicted the rioters with disdain, in ways that probably worsened official responses to them.
At the close of 1815, the United Kingdom had ended its wars with France, yet it embarked on a long struggle with disastrous weather. After an “extremely changeable” January, February was “unseasonably warm and moist,” lifting hopes that the season's crops might recover. Yet The Observer reported that both industrial and agricultural laborers were in “extreme distress” already.
By early May, a “Monthly Agricultural Report” in The Observer explained that conditions had not improved because “sun and warm weather are the great wants.” Prices were on the rise because of increased demand, speculation, and poor harvests throughout Europe. East Anglia experienced a roughly 33% increase in the price of wheat between March and May. Laborers were incapable of affording the prices of food and became desperate. They needed to eat but had no money, so protest became their only option.
In the frigid spring of 1816, riots broke out around East Anglia. One of the first instances was on April 17th when a crowd assembled in Gedding and smashed some farming equipment. After that Wattisham, Hitcham, and Rattlesden experienced disturbances on April 24th; Needham Market and Swaffham Bulbeck on May 7th; Bury St. Edmunds on May 14th; Brandon on May 16-18th; Norwich on May 16-20th; Hockwold on May 17th; Feltwell on May 18th; Hockham on May 19th; Downham Market on May 20-21st; and finally Littleport and Ely on May 21-24th. On May 23rd soldiers and local militia arrived in Ely, and between then and the 24th, they forcefully suppressed the rioting. Despite the military presence, some rioting continued in East Anglia, but the Littleport and Ely riots were successfully subdued.
While the protestors had many reasons for agitating, their core motivation was survival. They demanded either food, money, a reduction in food prices, or all of the above. In Brandon, the protestors called for “Cheap Bread, a Cheap Loaf and Provisions Cheaper.” A woman at the protest reportedly demanded “Bread or Blood in Brandon this day.” One man admitted that the protestors “did not mean any injury but he could not live with his large family as things were, and they must have flour cheaper.” As many of the protestors were agricultural laborers, they broke agricultural machinery, presumably with the goal of taking back those jobs that the machinery would have eliminated.
The protesters felt they had no choice: they would have food or violence, because either way their deaths were imminent. William Dawson of Outwell, when asked why he was agitating, is reported to have said, “Here I am […] between Earth and Sky—so help me God. I would sooner loose [sic] my life than go home as I am. Bread I want and Bread I will have.” For the protesters, causing a disturbance was the only way to ameliorate their suffering. Yet not everyone perceived the disturbances as the desperate attempts of the poor to find respite from coming starvation. Some saw the riots as evidence of the moral failings of the lower classes.
“Economical humbug of 1816 or, saveing at the spiggot & letting out at the bunghole" (April 1816) by George Cruikshank. Here Cruikshank criticizes the government for what he perceives as an imbalance in spending. The Regent, Princess Charlotte, Lord Castlereagh and others are stealing public money for their own wants and desires, with very little money going towards “Public Service.”
The Times reported on the disturbances on May 21st, noting that the sheriff of Suffolk had arrived in London to request government aid to “restore tranquility.” The first disturbances, according to The Times, had been incited by “malicious [...] agents” who were likely “agricultural labourers.” While the paper acknowledged that the protesters demanded “a reduction in the price of bread and meat,” it still suggested that their protests had been illegitimate.
When the protests broke out again, The Times depicted the protesters as criminals and revolutionaries. They had apparently attacked the “houses of those persons who were obnoxious to them.” Protesters in one group carried a flag inscribed with “Bread or Blood” and spears. They “threatened to march to London.”
The Times reported on the 25th "that the disturbances in Norfolk and Suffolk are by no means at an end.” The paper detailed the movement of troops, and related a short narrative about a few magistrates who realized that the laborers’ wages were too low and raised them. This caused The Times to ardently hope that the changes made by these magistrates in Downham were “proof of considerate attention to the complaints of the lower classes [and] will excite a correspondent gratitude in the minds of the latter, and induce them to return to habits of peaceful industry and order.” The suggestion by the paper was that the onus was on the laborers to stop protesting because a few officials had responded to their concerns. In other words, the laborers should just wait, because the government would come to their aid.
A long article on May 27th dove into the economics of the issue. The Times weighed whether the government should step in to support local agriculture when manufacturers in the country were not interested in the product. The paper concluded that government should not intervene, and suggested that protestors are merely using the current high prices as a “pretense” for violence. The paper brushed off the concerns of the protestors in East Anglia, again suggesting that they were rioting for malicious reasons rather than desperation. The final report, on the 30th, reported the disturbances had ceased, thanks to the efforts of soldiers and the local militia.
The Times placed the blame for “much of the disorderly conduct” on the poor laws, a system of welfare for impoverished people in the United Kingdom. The paper suggested that the laws had led the poor to expect handouts, and when they did not get what they wanted they became unruly. The rioters were brought to trial between June 17th and 22nd. In the end five people were executed, five exiled to Australia for life, four exiled for a shorter sentence, and ten imprisoned for twelve months. Food prices remained high in England until 1820.
“The Elgin Marbles! or John Bull buying stones at the time his numerous family want bread!!” (June 1816) by George Cruikshank. Cruikshank criticizes the government again for spending money contrary to the public good. In this case purchasing the controversial Elgin Marbles from Lord Elgin. Screaming children in the image implore John Bull (a national personification of Great Britain like Johnny Canuck or Uncle Sam) saying "Don't buy them Daddy! we don't want Stones. Give us Bread! Give us Bread! Give us Bread!".
Humanity has long endured changes in Earth's climate. Today, many people in the developed world can, for the moment, insulate themselves from the worst consequences of a changing climate. Yet millions in the developing world especially do not have that luxury. The media can either encourage or discourage action to address their suffering.
In 1816,The Times’ reporting of the Bread or Blood riots reinforced the idea that the protesters were criminals and malcontents, that their demands were inappropriate or untimely. That reporting would only bolster the biases of those in control. So despite a compromise written up by the Ely magistrates to increase wages depending on the price of flour and the size of the laborer’s family on May 23rd, on May 25th Lord Sidmouth placed a one-hundred-pound bounty on those “unlawfully assembled” in the region.
The Bread or Blood riots are a reminder that climate insecurity has been the rule and not the exception in human history. Newspaper accounts of the riots reveal that the media not only described events but also helped shape them in ways that exacerbated the worst effects of climate change for the most vulnerable. Today, media depictions of citizens furious about their lack of clean food or water, protestors enraged by the seizure and pollution of their homes, and refugees displaced by drought and violence can similarly worsen the social consequences of global warming. We must have a media that fairly describes the impacts of climate on people around the world, and we must keep a critical eye on media in order to adapt to and perhaps mitigate climate change.
“Disturbances in Norfolk And Suffolk.” The Times, May 23, 1816, pp. 3. The Times Digital Archive.
“London, Saturday, May 25, 1816.” The Times, May 25, 1816, pp. 3. The Times Digital Archive.
“London, Monday, May 27, 1816.”" The Times, May 27, 1816, pp. 3. The Times Digital Archive.
“London, Thursday, May 30, 1816.” The Times, May 30, 1816, pp. 2. The Times Digital Archive.
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Non-tabular iceberg off Elephant Island in the Southern Ocean. Source: Andrew Shiva, Wikipedia.
Ice, or a lack of it, is an “icon” of anthropogenic climate change. Earlier this year, researchers reported that a rift in Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf has accelerated and could soon cause a vast iceberg to fall into the sea. After the collapse of the ice shelf, the glaciers that once sustained it will run into the sea. Glaciers like these, Mark Carey has observed, have become an “endangered species” of the Anthropocene. Yet only a few decades ago, Antarctic ice was the hero in a visionary episode of the planet’s recent “cryo-history”.
In October 1977, scientists met at Iowa State University to discuss the latest findings in the emerging field of “iceberg utilization”. Eager to promote the cause was conference co-sponsor Prince Mohammed al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who flew an iceberg weighing over two tonnes from the Portage Glacier Field near Anchorage, Alaska to Ames, Iowa for the occasion – producing at least 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the 5,000km journey. One local couple, who brought with them plastic bags, a bucket, and an ice-pick to the iceberg’s unveiling, told the New York Times, “I don’t know what we’ll do with it – serve it in drinks, I guess. We’ll have a cocktail party”.
A series of US television news features documenting the Iceberg Utilization Conference, October 1977. Source: YouTube / Special Collections and University Archives, Iowa State University.
These stunts amused onlookers, but they were no laughing matter for the researchers studying the possibility of towing Antarctic icebergs to arid and semi-arid climes. Iceberg utilization was a tantalizing prospect for solving one of the world’s pressing problems: global water shortages. In their controversial study The Limits to Growth, the interdisciplinary research group the Club of Rome had earlier warned that the availability of fresh water was a limit to growth that “will be reached long before the land limit becomes apparent”. Bolstering this neo-Malthusian prediction were the widely reported droughts in the Sahel, the Ukraine, and the failure of the Indian Monsoon during the early 1970s.
An excerpt from the public affairs program, Dimension 5, which aired on WOI-TV in central Iowa, USA, October 1977. Panellists include Prince Mohamed Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Henri Bader, Daniel J. Zaffarano, Richard L. Cameron, and Ed Cronick. Source: Youtube / Special Collections and University Archives, Iowa State University.)
These anxieties were the focus of the 1977 United Nations Conference on Water in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where fresh water was declared a “scarce asset” that demanded coordinated resource development and management. Among the options discussed to increase water supplies were so-called “complex technologies” and “non-conventional methods”, such as seawater desalination. By the late 1970s desalination was already well established in Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia was eager to replicate its neighbour’s success. Leading this mission (at least until Antarctic icebergs beckoned) was the head of the Saudi Saline Water Conversion Corporation: Prince Mohamed al-Faisal. He shared his vision with the Christian Science Monitor, “Over a period, we would hope to change the vegetation and climate in some coastal areas”.
The Prince’s idea was several decades in the making. The prospect of using icebergs to modify local climates and to provide endless water supplies to the world’s thirstiest regions had emerged in the decade after the Second World War. In a 1949 class at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, oceanographer John Isaacs had speculated on the subject, and later expanded on his thinking in the February 1956 issue of Science Digest. He proposed floating an Antarctic iceberg along the Humboldt Current to the coast of southern California from where it could supply water to Los Angeles.
The feasibility of such a scheme had been confirmed in 1969, when glaciologist Willy Weeks and geophysicist Bill Campbell surprised even themselves when they concluded that towing icebergs to arid lands was “within the reach of existing technology”. They based their calculations on a large tabular iceberg that was twice the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was less likely to roll in transit and more likely to be found near the Antarctic than the Arctic. The optimum routes for towing such an iceberg, they suggested, were from the Amery Ice Shelf to southwestern Australia and from the Ross Ice Shelf to the Atacama Desert.
“Optimum towing paths between the Amery Ice Shelf and Australia and the Ross Ice Shelf and the Atacama Desert.” Fig. 8, Weeks and Campbell, 1973, p. 220.
In 1973, the National Science Foundation and the Rand Corporation sponsored a subsequent report on the feasibility of southern California for such a scheme. Antarctic icebergs could supply water for urban, industrial and agricultural demands, while helping to abate the growing thermal pollution of the industrialized region. According to their estimates, towing an iceberg from the Ross Sea to the Pacific southwest would be significantly cheaper than inter-basin water transfers and desalination. Furthermore, nuclear energy could be used, which would alleviate the need to use fossil fuels during a decade of uncertain oil supplies.
The possibility of endless water supplies was too good to ignore and the Saudi prince assembled experts from around the world to advance the field of “iceberg utilization”. His 1977 conference in Iowa attracted scientists from arid and semi-arid countries such as Egypt, Greece and Libya, as well as nations with polar territories, such as Australia, Chile and Canada. Nearly three quarters of the attendees were from the United States, most of whom were associated with the military-industrial-academic complex. They included researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Tetra Tech International, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, and the Naval Weapon Centre.
The lone woman speaking at the conference was the pioneering meteorologist, Joanne Simpson from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Simpson had been director of the experimental meteorology laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and member of the Weather Modification Advisory Board. Two decades of studying the intersections of cloud physics with hurricane research informed her comparison of Antarctic icebergs to cloudseeding, as well as her study of the atmospheric impacts of iceberg utilization. Although towing an iceberg would cost more than cloudseeding, she estimated that its meltwater would more than make up for the expense. In icebergs, Simpson also saw a means to mitigate the toll of tropical hurricanes. Using an iceberg to lower the surface temperature of the ocean ahead of an advancing hurricane would help to reduce the destructive winds of the hurricane.
“Illustration of possible new approach to the hurricane mitigation aspect of weather modification. Hurricanes are known to diminish in strength when they move over cooler water, here shown hypothetically to be supplied by a melting iceberg.” Source: Fig. 5, in Simpson, 1978, p. 865. Artist: Tom Henderson.
Simpson was well aware of the credibility gap that such endeavours faced. In 1978 she wrote, “For meteorology as a whole, public overheated controversy on weather modification gives the entire profession an image of ridiculous bumblers or even charlatans”. But the opportunity to “serve humanity” outweighed these concerns and she welcomed alternative modification methods.
Despite the promise of iceberg utilization, its potential impact on local climates became one of the many reasons why the vision did not become a reality. In Australia, for instance, enthusiastic plans for the continent’s southwest were rejected in the mid-1980s on the grounds that an iceberg “parked offshore for several years” might affect the regional climate in unexpected and unwanted ways. Peter Schwerdtfeger, the scheme’s Australian proponent, lamented that its feasibility lay not in science and technology, but in “politically and economically based decisions”. He remained confident, however, that iceberg utilisation would occur when “individual nations recognise their obligations to the more thirsty segment of mankind” and choose to exploit the Antarctic icebergs that otherwise “melt pointlessly in the Southern Ocean”. According to this logic, the failure to take advantage of the icebergs was tantamount to wasting precious water resources.
The possibility of iceberg utilization was one of many post-war technological visions. The futurism and science fiction of the atomic age urged the exploration and exploitation of new planetary frontiers such as the deep ocean and outer space. In the Cold War context, measuring, monitoring and manipulating the physical environment on a global scale had the potential to fulfil both military and peaceful ambitions. The iceberg “visioneers” were bit players in a wider debate about the Earth’s future, one that pitted the constraints of ecological limits against the possibilities of technological innovation. Just as the atom offered an inexhaustible source of cheap energy, Antarctica was a cornucopia of renewable fresh water simply awaiting the application of human ingenuity. Four decades later, we are searching for ways to keep that water well and truly locked up.
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