For most folks, the term “ice age” conjures images of wooly mammoths, prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and maybe that animated Disney movie with the sloth and the squirrel. But there’s been more than one ice age in our planet’s history, and the most recent one ended within the lifetimes of our great-great grandparents.
The “Little Ice Age” describes a period from (roughly) the 14th to mid-19th centuries marked by an average drop in temperature of 1.1˚F and glacial advancement across much of the Northern Hemisphere, especially Europe and North America.
While it’s unclear exactly how far this phenomenon extended around the world, there’s no doubt that the North Atlantic region experienced significantly colder temperatures than we do today. Sometimes those fluctuations forced people to change the way they survived on the landscape, and that includes how they acquired food.
How Do We Know the Little Ice Age Happened? Unlike prehistoric ice ages, the Little Ice Age was recorded in books, paintings, and journals, and we still have much of that evidence today.
Michael Mann of the University of Virginia compared a 19th-century etching of the Argentiere Glacier in the French Alps to a 1966 photograph from the exact same vantage point. The comparison shows that the glacier was far larger in the 1850s than it is today.
There are reports that New York Harbor froze during the 1800s, and the Thames River froze so frequently between the 17th and 19th centuries that a winter carnival in London was established to celebrate the occurrence. There are also direct thermometer measurements and other reliable documentary records from this time period, though they almost exclusively come from Europe.
Scientists can combine these and other historical records with modern-day observations to get an even clearer sense of temperature drops during the Little Ice Age. A 1998 study, for instance, considered tree ring growth and found that Europe reached its lowest average temperatures in the 17th century.
Other proxy evidence of this event includes sediment cores, indicators from corals, and ice cores from various parts of the world.
Graph via Encyclopedia Britannica.
What Caused the Little Ice Age? Scientists are far less sure about the causes of the Little Ice Age. Various theories have been proposed, including variability in solar output (low sunspot activity) and large-scale changes in atmospheric patterns.
One of the most intriguing theories hypothesizes that the earth can experience cooler temperatures when volcanic eruptions launch shiny aerosol particles that reflect sunlight back into space.
A 2012 paper claims to have substantiated this theory: “Our simulations showed that the volcanic eruptions may have had a profound cooling effect,” said scientist Bette Otto-Bliesner, a co-author of the study. “The eruptions could have triggered a chain reaction, affecting sea ice and ocean currents in a way that lowered temperatures for centuries.”
Another 2017 paper backs this up, and the authors argued that low sunspot activity was only minimally related to the Little Ice Age.
“Climate model simulations suggest multiple factors, particularly volcanic activity, were crucial for causing the cooler temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere during the Little Ice Age,” the scientists wrote.
Here’s another theory to chew on. According to a 2019 paper, the Little Ice Age may have been caused in part by the death of some 55 million Native Americans following European settlement. The paper’s authors contend that the abandonment of so much agricultural land allowed fast-growing trees and other vegetation to take over, which pulled so much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere it lowered the earth’s temperature.
There only seems to be consensus about one thing: More than one factor caused the Little Ice Age.
How Did the Little Ice Age Affect Humans? Just over one degree Fahrenheit of average temperature drop might not sound like much, but even small changes in average temperature can have huge effects on the length of the seasons, access to hunting and fishing territory, and the coldest extremes of the winter. Numerous French farms and villages were lost to advancing glaciers, Mann notes, and crops failed in parts of northern Europe.
Around 1350, a Norse community along the western coast of Greenland disappeared in part because lingering ice restricted summer hunting and fishing, according to Brian Fagan in “The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History.”
The community subsisted by harvesting hay and eating dried fish and marine mammal flesh. If, for successive years in a row, they couldn’t get onto the ocean until late in the season, they were in big trouble. According to Fagan, that’s exactly what happened.
The settlers were so desperate that, after eating their cows and catching as much small game as they could, they ate their prized hunting dogs, a breed Fagan says resembled an elkhound.
Part of their trouble was that they had failed to adopt the toggling harpoons and other ice-hunting technologies from their Inuit neighbors. Doing so would have allowed them to hunt ring seals year-round rather than hoping for the ice to melt.
When the ice stopped melting, some of the settlers starved. Even today their fate is uncertain. Fagan reports that no human remains were found at the site. The occupants left as their food ran out, but no one knows to where. Mann suggests that several factors likely contributed to this community’s disappearance but lowering temperatures could be among them.
In North America, the Little Ice Age may be partially responsible for forcing Native American tribes on the Great Plains to rely more heavily on hunting. Today, the Pawnee, Omaha, and Cheyenne tribes are known for their hunting skills on open landscapes, but those skills may have been developed in part as a response to Little Ice Age conditions.
Droughts brought about by colder weather struck Plains Native Americans in the 1300s, which may have encouraged them to adopt hunting as a way to supplement their farm produce, according to Britannica here and here. Plains tribes known for their earthen lodges and grass homes adopted the iconic teepees as they began following game to survive.
For example, archeologist Richard R. Drass reports in a 2008 article that researchers believe Wichita groups adapted to drying conditions by specializing exclusively in bison hunting around 1450. Prehistoric horticulture on the Plains could be “risky,” Drass said, and climatic changes caused severe droughts. Rather than subsist on both bison meat and drought-resistant produce, as many other tribes did, Wichita groups traded with Puebloan and eastern Plains groups for corn and other items.
By 1500, Drass says, the villages in this area had all but disappeared and no one is sure why.
Other factors contributed to this transition to hunting, of course, not the least of which was the introduction of horses. Dr. Steven Jackson of the University of Wyoming pointed out in an interview with MeatEater that Native Americans did hunt prior to the Little Ice Age and they also continued cultivating farmland after the Little Ice Age.
But he noted that the largest city in North America at that time, Cahokia, was abandoned around 1350 and it’s not clear what caused the migration.
“Something big happened,” Jackson said. “There was a severe, transient drought around that time which could have led to agricultural disruption. But the abandonment has also been blamed on a flood event and on cultural changes—both controversial.”
Jackson doesn’t go so far as to say the Little Ice Age caused Cahokia’s demise, but some scientists do. A July 2021 paper posits that drought conditions brought about by the Little Ice Age caused corn crops to fail and the city to deteriorate into violence and upheaval.
“Paleoclimate records indicate that this drought was widespread in the midcontinental U.S. and part of a general shift to more cold-season-like conditions during the Little Ice Age, with cooler, drier summers and colder, more severe winters,” the authors conclude.
The Cahokia people relied on maize agriculture to feed a relatively large population, the authors note. This made them susceptible to climate change, and they either perished like the Norse settlers or adopted other means of survival like the bison hunters. Either way, Cahokia disappeared around the same time as the Little Ice Age began.
Climate Change Adaptations The Little Ice Age was just one of many temperature fluctuations throughout the earth’s history. There were five much more significant ice ages in the ancient past, and the Little Ice Age was preceded by a period creatively named the “Medieval Warm Period” from 900 to 1300 AD.
Humans managed to adapt their means of acquiring food to the changing conditions during the Little Ice Age, as they have through many previous climate change periods. But that adaptation is never easy—especially when the atmosphere has a level of carbon that humans have never seen before. Only time will tell whether we change our ways like the Plains Native Americans or fade into obscurity like the Norse settlers.
Feature image is painting by George Catlin in 1844.