Few things can give us a glimpse of what is to come like looking at what has happened before. As humanity stands at the cusp of another shift in the climate, we are faced with consequences of choices that we have made and even harder choices that we have yet to make. The little ice age changed the climate of the world in a short period of time geologically speaking and today we are changing the climate even faster. The little ice age is theorized to have occurred because of a confluence of multiple major natural events.
It can be said that humanity’s industrialization along with a reversal of natural factors was a key in turning back the effects of the little ice age. We are already feeling the effects of longer, hotter seasons with droughts that are impacting world food supplies. Humanity must address its effect on the global climate and the best lessons to learn have already been taught in the period of time leading up to and during the little ice age. Ice ages come and ice ages go. This has been a normally occurring ebb and flow on the planet to maintain a balance.
Normally these cycles take hundreds and thousands of years to begin and end. The period called the little ice age differed as greatly from previous cooling periods as the current warming differs from other warming cycles between the greater ice ages. That is not to say that the root causes are not similar, the real difference is the speed at which the cycle is moving now. It removes the time needed for adaptation and causes a great loss of life in the process. Globally, millions due to the direct and indirect influences of the little ice age.
Every major death event and war during this period from the black plague to Napoleon’s failed campaign into Russia, the French revolution, and the Irish potato famine are tied to the little ice age. The little ice age was preceded by a warmer wetter period that allowed people to become reliant on certain crops and weather patterns for their survival. Several events occurred within a short period of time to start this cooling period that lasted 500 years. The warm period called the medieval maximum actually set events in motion.
It is hypothesized that this warm period melted global ice packs, introducing a large volume of fresh water into the ocean interrupting the thermohaline flow. This stopped warm water from reaching the northern climates and therefore the atmosphere grew colder because of this. The second circumstance was the Maunder Minimum. This is a period of dormancy for sunspots. This results in less radiation reaching earth and less warmth available. The third event was actually a series of events. Volcanic eruptions started with a regularity of five major eruptions every century.
This put a large amount of ash and water vapor into the atmosphere which in turn reflected the sunlight, deepening the cooling curve. These are all natural events far beyond the reach of man’s ability to affect or change them. Like the societies of the medieval maximum, current societies have grown reliant upon a few crops like corn, soy, and wheat. The problem with these crops is already becoming apparent with the drought occurring in the Midwest. “US corn and soybeans are crucial to global food supply because they are used for food, feed, cooking oil, and even motor fuel.
Reduced supply and higher prices mean that poorer, import-reliant nations may not be able to replenish their food stocks. ” (Jonsson, 2012). These are the same types of crops that were destroyed at the advent of the little ice age. They are not even able to survive the current warming trend; so it must be asked just how will they fare when another cold cycle onsets? Would we not be better off now to diversify our staples? We are now experiencing a period of volcanic dormancy, comparatively speaking.
Sunspots are fairly active which is creating a healthy amount of radiation for the earth to absorb. In addition to this mankind has industrialized globally. This has produced more greenhouse gasses in a one hundred year period than the earth has ever experienced before. These things have provided a period of warmth and growth that has never been seen before on earth. Industrialization has allowed for a better quality of life which has, in turn, allowed a greater longevity of life and a lower mortality rate in the young.
Just as in the mediaeval maximum human population has exploded; we have surpassed six billion people and are well on our way to reaching seven billion within a decade. This, of course, leads to more industrialization which leads to more population expansion and the cycle continues until critical mass is reached. Humanity will, or may have already reached the point that it will not be able to support itself. The adaptation period when the climate shifts back to a cooling cycle will be swift. A Maunder Minimum is upon us and the volcanoes will not remain quiet for long.
The reaction of societies at the beginning of and during the little ice age gives us clues as to what must be done. We must diversify our food crops and not be reliant on a few species that are already failing us. We must curtail our greenhouse gas output, but this must be done in a responsible and deliberate manner. We will not be able to stop the next cooling period; however we can ease our transition into it. If we are smart we will be prepared for what is to come. We must plan for the inevitable or it will overtake us just as it did our ancestors.