Historian Geoffrey Parker is the author of Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century. In a recent opinion piece, he suggested that the desperate climate from 1600 to 1700 is a template for human collapse in our twenty-first century. There are two massive flaws in his theory.
Almost all past agricultural and cultural collapses occurred during “little ice ages,” not during our many global warm periods. In addition, today’s seeds, fertilizers, and modern farming techniques and technologies are far superior to anything mankind possessed during previous crises.
The seventeenth century was part of the 550-year Little Ice Age, the most recent of at least seven “little ice ages” that have befallen the planet since the last Pleistocene Ice Age ended some 13,000 years ago. Studying sediment deposits in the North Atlantic, Gerard Bond of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found such centuries-long “little ice ages” beginning at 1300 AD, 600 AD, 800 BC, 2200 BC, 3900 BC, 7400 BC, 8300 BC, and perhaps at 9100 BC. In fact, these worldwide Dansgaard-Oeschger disasters arrived on a semi-regular basis some 600 times over the past million years.
Each of these icy ages blasted humanity with short, cold, cloudy growing seasons, untimely frosts, and extended droughts interspersed with heavy and violent rains. Naturally, their crops failed. Humanity’s cities starved to death, repeatedly – with seven collapses in Mesopotamia, six each for Egypt and China, two for Angkor Wat, and at several calamities in Europe.
The early cultures gave the illusion of continuity: the Nile and the Yangtze always had at least a little irrigation water. However, “little ice age” hunger and disease drove human and animal migrations across thousands of miles and over continents, led to major invasions like the Huns into Europe’s Dark Ages, and caused the collapse of kingships and ruling dynasties around the globe.
While acknowledging the existence of the cold, chaotic periods, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has barely factored them into its computer models. The IPCC seems to think it is just coincidence that our warm and relatively stable Modern Warming directly followed the latest awful Little Ice Age.
Moreover, our recent climate has been more stable than the chaotic “little ice ages.” Iraq has not had a three-century drought recently. The Volga River Valley has not been too flooded to farm for 700 years, as happened after 600 BC. British logbooks show the Little Ice Age featured more than twice as many major hurricanes making landfall in the Caribbean, compared to the twentieth century.
Parker mentions three possible driving forces for the seventeenth century collapse: volcanoes, El Niños, and the sun. There’s no cycle in the volcanoes, however, and the El Niños are too short – rarely lasting more than a year or two. That leaves the sun, and the powerful influences it has on Earth’s temperature and climate.
Indeed, Parker’s own book focuses on the Maunder Minimum (1645–1715 AD), the solar cold cycle that existed during and caused the depths of the Little Ice Age. During this time, the sun had virtually no sunspots for 70 years, significantly reducing the crop-growing warmth reaching our planet, while producing long periods of horrendous storms and floods that killed crops and ruined harvested grains.
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