Is Climate Change Influencing the Invasion of Ukraine? Possible Connections Echo Little Ice Age Histories.
Dr. Dagomar Degroot, Georgetown University
According to a western intelligence report, when Vladimir Putin travelled to Beijing this February, Xi Jinping asked him to wait until after the Olympics to invade Ukraine. Frigid winter weather had, by then, frozen the Ukrainian landscape, making it strong enough to support Russian tanks. American officials warned that the Russian military could exploit this hardened terrain to invade. Putin, however, apparently agreed to wait. The weather would surely be cold enough in March.
Not long ago, it was a safe assumption to make. Yet temperatures around Kyiv and Kharkiv – Ukraine’s first and second cities, hotbeds of fighting in the present war – have warmed by more than two degrees Celsius since the middle of the twentieth century. In February, temperatures across Ukraine soared over five degrees Celsius above their mid-twentieth century averages. Frozen ground that otherwise would have held Russian heavy armor collapsed into mud.
When Putin finally launched his brutal invasion on February 24th, images proliferated across social media of Russian tanks and rocket launchers abandoned in the mud. In northern Ukraine, Russian vehicles kept to roads, forming long columns easily bombed from the air. Far from the blitzkrieg Putin seems to have expected, the invasion from the north advanced at a snail’s pace. It was an unexpected reversal that owed much to the bravery and skill of Ukrainian soldiers and their leaders. Yet it may also have owed something to the influence of human-caused climate change.
Human activities have warmed Earth’s climate by about one degree Celsius since the middle of the twentieth century, and land is heating up at about twice the speed of the oceans. This is why Kyiv and Kharkiv have warmed around as much as Washington, DC and New York City. The combination of the speed, magnitude, and cause of this climate change has no precedent in Earth’s history. Yet natural forces have changed Earth’s climate even before the industrial era, in ways that shaped the outcome of wars.
In the late sixteenth century, for example, explosive volcanic eruptions cooled European temperatures as just the Spanish Empire struggled to suppress a rebellion in the Low Countries. Cooling altered patterns of atmospheric circulation, increasing the regional frequency of heavy rains and intense storms. Invading Spanish armies routinely found it difficult to advance towards fortified cities. When they finally arrived, they discovered it was nearly impossible to dig trenches in the mud that would have allowed them to mount an effective siege. Then as now, wet, muddy weather can be a nightmare for an invading army.
The rebel army was much weaker than its Spanish counterpart, whose “Army of Flanders” was widely regarded as the best in Europe. To even the playing field, rebel engineers breached dikes that normally protected the coastal Low Countries from the sea. Deliberate floods washed away besieging armies around the cities of Alkmaar and Leiden, for example, and brought to battle the formidable rebel fleet. Storms and heavy rainfall increased the speed and therefore the military effectiveness of these floods, allowing the rebels to relieve besieged cities more quickly than they otherwise could.
Here again, history may be repeating itself. Near Kyiv, Ukrainian defenders seem to have breached a dam, sending floodwaters north of the Dnieper River. Until recently, a Russian convoy had stalled nearby, owing in part to challenging terrain and the vigorous Ukrainian defense. The fog of war is thick even in a battlefield that can feel saturated by social media, and for now it is hard to know to what extent the floods slowed the Russian advance. If they did, climate change may again have played a pivotal role. Without today’s warm temperatures, the water would have frozen, and intentional floods would have been much harder to execute.
Temperatures across Ukraine plummeted over the weekend, however, because climate change consists of gradual trends and therefore does not determine daily weather. Unfortunately, the sixteenth century reveals that “hydraulic warfare” can fail in such conditions. Spanish armies repeatedly invaded into rebel territories over frozen rivers and flooded landscapes that otherwise would have blocked their progress. Rebel defenders struggled to break up the ice, sometimes by literally hacking at it with axes, but it was often not enough.
Bitterly cold weather, however, created additional hazards for sixteenth-century invaders. Long sieges dragged on for months, and when they did soldiers ran out of fuel and food. Many froze to death, and those who survived repeatedly mutinied. After one particularly brutal winter, in 1573, Spanish soldiers demanded “winter-quarters in walled and populous towns” as long as rebels were not themselves in the field. It is tempting to wonder whether some poorly-provisioned Russian soldiers will leave their posts in frigid temperatures.
Yet the greatest effects of climate change on war may unfold far from the battlefield. When rebels in the Low Countries coalesced into a country – the Dutch Republic, precursor of today’s Netherlands – they found ingenious ways to cope with a cooler climate, and this may have given them a military edge over other European powers. Today, a warm spring would ease Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas, providing new motivation for blocking a key export of Putin’s regime – and the most important source of Russian leverage over western Europe. Exports that cripple Russia's economy may yet compel Putin to withdraw - though, tragically, the cost to ordinary Russians would be immense.
Researchers and military officials have long focused on the potential for climate change to cause wars by shifting the supply, accessibility, or defensibility of desirable resources. Yet the history of the Little Ice Age may reveal that climate change most profoundly affects wars by transforming how they can be fought, occasionally to the detriment of one side and the salvation of another. As Putin may be discovering, in a rapidly warming world the influence of climate change is inescapable - even for one of the world's most ruthless regimes.
Prof. María Cristina García, Cornell University.
People displaced by extreme weather events and slower-developing environmental disasters are often called “climate refugees,” a term popularized by journalists and humanitarian advocates over the past decade. The term “refugee,” however, has a very precise meaning in US and international law and that definition limits those who can be admitted as refugees and asylees. Calling someone a “refugee” does not mean that they will be legally recognized as such and offered humanitarian protection.
The principal instruments of international refugee law are the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which defined a refugee as:
"any person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it." [i]
This definition, on which current U.S. law is based, does not include any reference to the “environment,” “climate,” or “natural disaster,” that might allow consideration of those displaced by extreme weather events and/or climate change.
In some regions of the world, other legal instruments have supplemented the U.N. Refugee Convention and Protocol, and these instruments offer more expansive definitions of refugee status that might offer protections to the environmentally displaced. The Organization of African Unity’s “Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (1969)” includes not only external aggression, occupation, and foreign domination as the motivating factors for seeking refuge, but also “events seriously disturbing the public order.”[ii] In the Americas, the non-binding Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (1984), crafted in response to the wars in Central America, set regional standards for providing assistance not just for those displaced by civil and political unrest but also those fleeing “circumstances which have seriously disturbed the public order.”[iii] The Organization of American States has also passed a series of resolutions offering member states additional guidance on how to respond to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and others in need of temporary or permanent protection. In Europe, the European Union Council Directive (2004) has identified the minimum standards for the qualification and status of refugees or those who might need “subsidiary protection.”[iv]
Together, these regional and international conventions, protocols, and guidelines acknowledge that people are displaced for a wide range of reasons and that they deserve respect and compassion and, at the bare minimum, temporary accommodation. Climate change has been absent in these discussions perhaps because environmental disruptions such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and drought were long assumed to be part of the “natural” order of life, unlike war and civil unrest, which are considered extraordinary, man-made, and thus avoidable. The expanding awareness that societies are accelerating climate change to life-threatening levels requires that countries reevaluate the populations they prioritize for assistance, and adjust their immigration, refugee, and asylum policies accordingly.
Under current U.S. immigration law, those displaced by sudden-onset disasters and environmental degradation do not qualify for refugee status or asylum unless they are able to demonstrate that they have also been persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. This wasn’t always the case: indeed, U.S. refugee policy once recognized that those displaced by “natural calamity” were vulnerable and deserved protection. The 1953 Refugee Relief Act, for example, defined a refugee as “any person in a country or area which is neither Communist nor Communist-dominated, who because of persecution, fear of persecution, natural calamity or military operations is out of his usual place of abode and unable to return thereto… and who is in urgent need of assistance for the essentials of life or for transportation.”[v] The 1965 Immigration Act (Hart-Celler Act) established a visa category for refugees that included persons “uprooted by catastrophic natural calamity as defined by the President who are unable to return to their usual place of abode.” [vi]
Between 1965 and 1980, no refugees were admitted to the United States under the “catastrophic natural calamity” provision but that did not stop legislators from opposing its inclusion in the refugee definition. Some legislators argued that it was inappropriate to offer permanent resettlement to people who were only temporarily displaced; while others took issue on the grounds that it undermined the economic recovery of hard-hit countries by draining them of their most highly-skilled citizens. The 1980 Refugee Act subsequently eliminated any reference to natural calamity or disaster, in line with the United Nation’s definition of refugee status.
In recent decades, scholars, advocates, and policymakers have called for a reevaluation of the refugee definition in order to grant temporary or permanent protection to a wider range of vulnerable populations, including those displaced by environmental conditions. At present, U.S. immigration law offers very few avenues for entry for the so-called “climate refugees”: options are limited to Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Delayed Enforced Departure (DED), and Humanitarian Parole.
The 1990 Immigration Act provided the statutory provision for TPS: according to the law, those unable to return to their countries of origin because of an ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or “extraordinary and temporary conditions” can, under some conditions, remain and work in the United States until the Attorney General (after 2003, the Secretary of Homeland Security) determines that it is safe to return home. [vii] There is one catch: in order to qualify for TPS one already has to be physically present in the United States—as a tourist, student, business executive, contract worker or even as an unauthorized worker. TPS is granted on a 6, 12, or 18-month basis, renewed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) if the qualifying conditions persists. TPS recipients do not qualify for state or federal welfare assistance but they are allowed to live and work in the United States until federal authorities determine that it’s safe to return. In the meantime, they can send much-needed remittances to their families and communities back home to assist in their recovery.
TPS is one way, albeit imperfect, that United States exercises its humanitarian obligations to those displaced by environmental disasters and climate change. It is based on the understanding that countries in crisis require time to recover; if nationals living abroad return in large numbers, in a short period of time, they can have a destabilizing effect that disrupts that recovery. Countries affected by disaster must meet certain conditions in order to qualify: first, the Secretary of Homeland Security must determine that there has been a substantial disruption in living conditions as a result of a natural or environmental disaster, making it impossible for a government to accommodate the return of its nationals; and second, the country affected by environmental disaster must officially petition for its nationals to receive TPS status (a requirement that is not imposed on countries affected by political violence). However, environmental disaster does not automatically guarantee that a country’s nationals will receive temporary protection. The U.S. federal government has total discretion and the decision-making process is not immune to domestic politics.
Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) is another status available to those unable to return to hard-hit areas: DED offers a stay of removal as well as employment authorization, but the status is most often used when TPS has expired. In such circumstances, the president has the discretionary (but rarely used) authority to allow nationals to remain in the United States in the interest of humanitarian or foreign policy, or until Congress can pass a law that offers a permanent accommodation. [viii]
Humanitarian “parole” is yet another recourse for the environmentally displaced. The 1952 McCarran Walter Act granted the attorney general discretionary authority to grant temporary entry to individuals, on a case-by-case basis, if deemed in the national interest. Since 2002, humanitarian parole requests have been handled by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and are granted much more sparingly than during the Cold War. USCIS generally grants parole only for one year (renewable on a case-by-case basis). [ix] Parole does not place an individual on a path to permanent residency or citizenship, nor does it make applicants eligible for welfare benefits; only occasionally are “parolees” granted the right to work, allowing them to earn a livelihood and send remittances to communities hard hit by political and environmental disruptions.
TPS, DED, and humanitarian parole are only temporary accommodations for select and small groups of people. They are an inadequate response to the humanitarian crisis that will develop in the decades to come. Scientists forecast that in an era of unmitigated and accelerated climate change, sudden-onset disasters will become fiercer, exacerbating poverty, inequality, and weak governance, and forcing many more people to seek safe haven elsewhere—perhaps in the hundreds of millions over the next half-century.
In the current political climate, it’s hard to imagine that wealthier nations like the United States will open their doors to even a tiny fraction of these displaced peoples; however, the more economically developed countries must do more to honor their international commitments to provide refuge, especially to those in developing areas who are suffering from environmental conditions they did not create. In the decades to come, as legislators try to mitigate the effects of climate change and help their populations become resilient, they must also share the burden of a human displacement caused by the failure to act quickly enough.
María Cristina García, an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, is the Howard A. Newman Professor of American Studies in the Department of History at Cornell University. She is the author of several books on immigration, refugee, and asylum policy. She is currently completing a book on the environmental roots of refugee migrations in the Americas.
[i] United Nations, “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,” 14, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/3b66c2aa10. The 1951 Convention limited the focus of assistance to European refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War. The 1967 Protocol removed these temporal and geographic restrictions. The United States did not sign the 1951 Convention but it did sign the 1967 Protocol.
[ii] The OAU convention stated that the term refugee should also apply to “every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing the public order in either part or the whole of his country or origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.” Organization of African Unity, Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa,” http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/about-us/background/45dc1a682/oau-convention-governing-specific-aspects-refugee-problems-africa-adopted.html accessed September 15, 2017.
[iii] The Cartagena Declaration stated that “in addition to containing elements of the 1951 Convention…[the definition] includes among refugees, persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed the public order.” Cartagena Declaration on Refugees,” http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/about-us/background/45dc19084/cartagena-declaration-refugees-adopted-colloquium-international-protection.html
[iv] European Union, “Council Directive 2004/83/EC,” April 29, 2004, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32004L0083 accessed March 20, 2018.
[v] Refugee Relief Act of 1953 (P.L. 83-203), https://www.law.cornell.edu/topn/refugee_relief_act_of_1953.
[vi] Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-236), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/STATUTE-79/pdf/STATUTE-79-Pg911.pdf
[vii] Immigration Act of 1990 (P.L.101-649), https://www.congress.gov/bill/101st-congress/senate-bill/358
[viii] USCIS, “Deferred Enforced Departure,” https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/temporary-protected-status/deferred-enforced-departure.
[ix] The humanitarian parole authority was first recognized in the 1952 Immigration Act (more popularly known as the McCarran Walter Act). See http://library.uwb.edu/Static/USimmigration/1952_immigration_and_nationality_act.html. See also “§ Sec. 212.5 Parole of aliens into the United States,” https://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/SLB/HTML/SLB/0-0-0-1/0-0-0-11261/0-0-0-15905/0-0-0-16404.html
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.
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