“This is the coldest it’s been and the most snow we’ve had in my 20 years living here,” says a friend. And “where is that climate change?” someone asks at the post office. The change deniers like this as much as they don’t like the cold—though I don’t really hear much about that from locals, who are busy dealing with the weather given them, figuring out how to stretch the hay, keep the driveway open, or get to a scheduled airplane departure or pick-up in Boise, Walla Walla, or Lewiston.
I remember 40 years ago learning that some sort of wet cycle had given hope to homesteaders on the County’s north end at the turn of the last century. Then wells went dry and the lucky ones with water bought out their neighbors and consolidated land and water. I heard about 7 year cycles, 30 year cycles, and even 100 year cycles, but nothing about a changing climate.
Polar bear talk and sinking island nations have caught my attention over recent years, but it was only after I started poking around early American history, reading Josephy and Charles Mann and wondering what really drove the first immigrants across the oceans in the early days of European settlement that I began to wonder about climate. What about that Little Ice Age? I thought, and then read about cold and hungry European parents taking their teenage children to the docks, handing them over to a ship’s captain who promised to get them across the sea and into the hands of a wealthy somebody who would indenture them for 3 or 5 or 7 years and then allow them freedom and a chance to feed and clothe themselves and make their own ways in the New World.
I told Al Josephy I needed to know more about the Little Ice Age, and he said that he had had a professor at UC Santa Barbara named Brian Fagan who had written a book about it. Oh—“and dad had him write some stuff for American Heritage in the ‘70s I think.” Then, on a trip to Portland and Powell’s, I found The Great Warming, a book Fagan had written about the period from about 800 to about 1300, which preceded the Little Ice Age, which runs from about 1300 to 1850. I’d start there.
I learned that over half of the pre-American Revolution European immigrants were indentured, fleeing failed crops and cold poverty in the old countries smack in the middle of the Little Ice Age. And when I looked in an old “Western Civ” textbook that I used in 1962, the Little Ice Age didn’t show up, nor did its predecessor, the Great Warming and the rapid increase in population that accompanied it. Even The Plague, which wiped out maybe half of the European population in the mid-fourteenth century, just as the warming slowed, got only brief mention. History was about kings and queens, religions, writs, constitutions and forms of government, wars and great men, not about changing climate and diseases.
Fagan first tells us that the causes of ancient climate change—which remain contributors to current warming—are difficult to measure. Ocean currents—now named—and sun activity are involved, but just how is still being explored (“El Nino” was not even in the vocabulary as I grew up on the California coast!). He then recounts the Nordic exploration and settlement in Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland; the growing of wine grapes in England and wheat in Norway, and the development of the moldboard plow to turn over new agricultural ground. In Europe, the results of warming seemed sanguine.
But in the Western Hemisphere and in Africa the results were dramatically different. Drought was in fact the largest factor in die-offs of large segments of live oaks and Pacific populations, and in the collapse of Mayan city-states, where sophisticated irrigation systems could not cope.
Fagan’s most striking finding in this warming exploration was its erratic nature: temperatures did not increase in a straight line, but bounced upward relentlessly; rains didn’t come for years, and then came in torrents. The hallmark of climate in that period in the earth’s history—the roughly 500 years beginning about 800—was its erratic, in the short term unpredictable, nature.
So this winter’s snows and cold might—or might not—signal next winter’s warmth and rain. But read Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming for some understanding.
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