Ice and its significance

In 1816, headlines in newspapers read: “The Year Without a Summer” (also known as the Poverty Year, “The Summer that Never Was”, “Year There Was No Summer” and “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”. Climate abnormalities caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F), resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. It is believed that the anomaly was caused by a combination of a historic low in solar activity with a volcanic winter event, the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years, which occurred during the concluding decades of the Little Ice Age, potentially adding to the existing cooling that had been periodically ongoing since 1350 AD.

Without the communication systems we have today, it took years for people to make the connection that an ash cloud far from them had blotted out the sun and sent darkness, foul dust and bitter cold as far south as France. The resultant agricultural devastation and famine became widespread in areas worst hit by the effects of the cloud. Many people died from respiratory illnesses and inability to keep warm. Amazing sunsets were witnessed and Turner famously painted ships sitting on the water against vivid skies as if they were on fire.

A Wikipedia entry on the subject states:

As a result of the series of volcanic eruptions, crops in the above-mentioned areas had been poor for several years; the final blow came in 1815 with the eruption of Tambora. Europe, still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in the United Kingdom and France, and grain warehouses were looted. The violence was worst in landlocked Switzerland, where famine caused the government to declare a national emergency. Huge storms and abnormal rainfall with floodings of the major rivers of Europe (including the Rhine) are attributed to the event, as was the frost setting in during August 1816. A major typhus epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819, precipitated by the famine caused by “The Year Without a Summer”. It is estimated that 100,000 Irish perished during this period. A BBC documentary using figures compiled in Switzerland estimated that fatality rates in 1816 were twice that of average years, giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths.

New England also experienced great consequences from the eruption of Tambora. The corn crop was grown significantly in New England and the eruption caused the crop to fail. It was reported that in the summer of 1816 corn ripened so badly that no more than a quarter of it was usable for food. The crop failures in New England, Canada and parts of Europe also caused the price of wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk and flour to rise sharply.

The eruption of Tambora also caused Hungary to experience brown snow. Italy experienced something similar, with red snow falling throughout the year. The cause of this is believed to have been volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

In China, unusually low temperatures in summer and fall devastated rice production in Yunnan, resulting in widespread famine. Fort Shuangcheng, now in Heilongjiang, reported fields disrupted by frost and conscripts deserting as a result. Summer snowfall or otherwise mixed precipitation was reported in various locations in Jiangxi and Anhui, located at around 30 degrees latitude. In Taiwan, which has a tropical climate, snow was reported in Hsinchu and Miaoli, while frost was reported in Changhua.

Agricultural catastrophe hit the UK once again when continual inclement weather hit in the 1870s. Harvests failed 7 years out of 10. Farmers and landowners could not compete with the glut of produce from the US using new farm technology in the new wheat belts of the Prairies. US wheat production increased by 700 per cent. British wheat production fell by 40 per cent. The price of wool dropped in Britain from 28 shillings per 14lb bundle to 12 due to competition from the success of farmers in the Antipodes.

British tenant farmers were driven out of farming. There was no work for agricultural workers. Fields became unused. Landowners no longer received rents. Churches lost their communities. Clergymen no longer had secure tenure. As the country lost it’s way an aristocrat hit on the idea of hitting the pockets of the landed classes. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he brought in a highly unpopular 8 per cent death duties tax which led to a reliable source of revenue. Over many decades that tax reached 60 per cent and led to the disappearance of 2000 stately homes which could no longer be maintained. The wealth accrued through ownership of art works, tapestries, jewellery, porcelain, books and artefacts collected during the Victorian era were sold off over time to pay bills. These goods were bought by wealthy foreigners, particularly wealthy Americans such as J P Morgan. Amazingly, since everything which could be sold was, Sir Edmund Antrobus sold Stonehenge for £300,000 to Sir Cecil Chubb and then he gave it to the nation in 1915. It was not usual to give such gifts to the nation. Landowners would not give up what was on their land, they would rather destroy it and rarely recognised the worth of ancient burial mounds, monuments or archeological finds.

Yet, during that grim period, a man named Sir John Lubbock helped lay the foundations of the science of archaeology. He came up with the terms ‘Palaeolithic’, ‘Mesolithic’, ‘Neolithic’ and ‘Prehistoric’ . He was influenced by his neighbour, Charles Darwin, who he constantly visited as a child. He obediently followed in his father’s footsteps to become a banker, but his great love was the natural world. He was an active Liberal politician

It is only in recent times that ancient relics have been protected. A man named Sir John Lubbock helped lay the foundations of the science of archaeology. He came up with the terms ‘Palaeolithic’, ‘Mesolithic’, ‘Neolithic’ and ‘Prehistoric’ during the 1860 – 80s. He was responsible for setting up the protection of ancient monuments. (He also secured additional holidays and shorter working hours for the working classes). In 1865 He published Pre-Historic Times, which became a standard archaeology textbook for the remainder of the century, with the seventh and final edition published in 1913. His second book, On the Origin of Civilization, was published in 1870.

Without people like Lubbock we would have no evidence of previous civilisations in Britain. Today, in the Scottish papers, we are told remains of a medieval village have been found near Selkirk whilst contractors were laying pipes for new water works. Only a century ago such finds would have been of no interest, as the land was valued for agriculture and the more land owned, the wealthier the owner if it was good for farming.

We now have scientists taking drilled samples of the ocean sediment to date the periods of ice and no ice on this planet since the Earth came into being. As I watch the snow retreat I am thinking how amazing it is that tropical forests and animals roamed land where now we have ice caps in the north and south hemisphere. That explains why there is oil beneath the ice. Russians have drilled thousands of miles down to a hidden subglacial Lake Vostock in an area of Antarctica to take samples. Perhaps their study will reveal what Antarctica’s climate and ecosystem was like millions of years ago.

I now look at ice and snow in a totally different way. Living in Scotland, only a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, I realise how significant it is to live on land which once was in the Antarctic and passed through tropical climates, to now living on the same land which has become so close to the Arctic and all that is associated with our growing understanding of that part of our planet.

Tonight a massive asteroid passed by the earth, missing by a few thousand miles. Our scientists told us we had nothing to worry about and they were right. I can upload this onto my Blog but wrote it whilst slightly concerned they had their calculations wrong!

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About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers.
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One Response to Ice and its significance

  1. Interesting stuff. They still talk about the Summer That Never Was back where I grew up in New England. It was not all that long ago and could surely happen again… and probably will. Most humans, at least Americans seem to have little knowledge of the big picture of Earth and time.

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