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"A physical chill settled on the 14th century at its very start, initiating the miseries to come. The Baltic Sea froze over twice, in 1303 and 1306-07; years followed of unseasonable cold, storms and rains, and a rise in the level of the Caspian Sea. Contemporaries could not know it was the onset of the Little Ice Age, caused by an advance of polar and alpine glaciers and lasting until about 1700. Nor were they aware that, owing to the climatic change, communication with Greenland was gradually being lost; that the Norse settlements there were being extinguished, that cultivation of grain was disappearing from Iceland and being severely reduced in Scandinavia. But they could fear the cold weather and mark with fear its result: a shorter growing season."
Barbara Tuchman: A Distant Mirror

Although there is lack of agreement on the dates of the Little Ice Age, most researchers would extend its end well into the 19th century. Estimates on its beginning range from the mid-12th to the early 14th century.

Many causes are cited by various authors for the Little Ice Age. The most prominent of these is a decrease in solar radiation associated with lower sunspot activity. In particular, The Sporer and, especially the Maunder, minima of sunspot activity are often cited. Although sunspot observations have been made for nearly 2,000 years, the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century allowed for more detailed observations. Records also show that the Little Ice Age was a period of enhanced volcanic activity. In the past two centuries, we have seen how volcanic activity can affect climate. After the eruption of Tambora in April, 1815, Earth cooled for at least two years with 1816 being recorded in many places as the Year without a Summer. Cooling was also observed after the eruptions of Krakatau in 1883 and Pinatubo in 1991, although not as extreme as the cooling associated with Tambora. Other possible contributing factors that are sometimes mentioned are changes in Earth's thermohaline circulation which was seen to have occurred during the Younger Dryas event, and may even be occurring once again today; and changes in orbit associated with Milankovitch cycles. (These last two, however are not widely supported.)

The Little Ice Age had major impacts including glaciers in parts of Europe and even South America. Even though South America was not widely settled, evidence of glacier advances in Chile can be seen in the writings of Spanish explorers and missionaries. Other imacts included the loss of contact by the Vikings with settlements in Greenland.

The Little Ice Age can often be seen in the art of the time. Aert van der Neer painted several pictures. Two are shown to the right: Sports on a Frozen River and Winter scene with a Frozen Canal. Van der Neer was a Dutch painter - we know that today it is very rare for canals in Holland to freeze over. Van der Neer painted these pictures in the mid-17th century where apparently ice skating was a widespread activity. (Pictures from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center). As late as 1868 as the Little Ice Age was abating, Renoir painted Skaters on the Bois de Boulogne depicting the park in Paris covered in snow around a frozen lake. Today, snow and ice are rare in Paris.



Problem-Based Learning Inquiry Strategy:
The International Commission on Economics (ICE) is trying to make decisions about how to invest R and D funds to support agriculture in planning for global food needs in the next century. Your team has been hired to look at climate records from the past and current climate events and trends, and then develop an advisory report to aid in their long-range planning. This would need to take into account where the greatest portion of the World's staple food crops are currently grown and projections for that part of the globe. You should review the impacts of the Little Ice Age, and how to moderate them if a similar event were to occur.

PBL Alternate:
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is concerned about the effect of global climate change on long-range plans for Olympic venues. They have commissioned your team to look at climate records from the past and current climate trends, then develop an advisory report to aid in their long-range planning of possible Olympic venues that could be deeply influenced by climate


Date: 12/6/2008

Scenario Images:

Sports on a Frozen River
17th century painting by Van der Neer, a Dutch painter. Image: courtesy NASA GFSC

Winter scene with a Frozen Canal
Another painting by Van der Neer showing a Dutch scene from the 17th century. Image: courtesy NASA GSFC

Glacier Retreat
Receding glacier, southern Greenland. One of many glaciers on southern Greenland that has retreated (melted) dramatically since the end of the Little Ice Age (about 1850). In front of the present ice margin is the large brown unvegetated region formerly occupied by ice and bounded by the "end moraine," or rocky ridge that marks the maximum Little Ice Age extent of the glacier. Image credit: Jonathan Overpeck courtesy NOAA.



1883 eruption of Krakatau (Cycle A)
This web site discusses the eruption of Krakatau - it was followed by cooling.


Climate and human activity (Cycle A)
Climate and Human Activity: students are asked to utilize websites discussing anecdotal evidence of connections between human activities and climate conditions during the period known as the "Little Ice Age," generally defined as between 1150 and 1900. They will use discussions of agricultural production, disease and famine, and economic activity related to harvest of marine and forest resources. The task is to relate human activity to changes in climate conditions.


History of sunspot observations (Cycle A)
This web site gives the history of sunspot observations.


How are past temperatures determined from an ice core? (Cycle A)
Explains how scientists use ice cores to determine temperatures.


Is there a Little Ice Age signal in New England lake sediments? (Cycle A)
A reduction of pollen sediments in New England ponds as well as tree ring growth give evidence to the occurrence of the Little Ice Age in North America.


Tambora: The greatest volcanic eruption in recorded history (Cycle A)
Discusses the eruption of Tambora in 1815 and the subsequent global cooling including "The Year Without a Summer".


The Little Ice Age (Cycle A)
This website, from the University of Washington, explores evidence for, and possible cause of, the Little Ice Age


The Sun's Chilly Impact on Earth (Cycle A)
This website explains why the little ice age happened. It includes several animations showing how the temperatures have changed on the planet over the years.


Was there a "Little Ice Age" and a "Medieval Warm Period" ? (Cycle A)
Website giving information on the specifics of temperature changes in different parts of Europe. Suggests that the Little Ice Age was less a global event and more of a regional event with different parts of Europe experiencing different temperature anomalies at different times.


Are We on the Brink of a 'New Little Ice Age?' (Cycle B)
This website, from Woods Hole Institute has an excellent explanation for why global warming can lead to a cooling of Northern Europe. It also has several videos modeling the climatic forces that will lead to this situation.


Dead Corals Do Tell Tales (Cycle B)
Woods Hole article explains how corals give information about ocean water composition, chemistry, and temperature .


From Shakespeare to Defoe: Malaria in England in the Little Ice Age (Cycle B)
Interesting viewpoint on malaria and its presence in England during the Little Ice Age.


Geoscience Research Institute - The Little Ice Age (Cycle B)
This website explains the social and environmental impacts of the Little Ice Age on the world. It includes several graphs that show numerous measurements of weather, food prices and other indicators at the time.


Marshes Tell Story of Medieval Drought, Little Ice Age, and European Settlers near New York City (Cycle B)
This website explains how marsh plants change in response to the environment and how soil samples deep in the swamps preserve evidence of these changes.


Sedimentary Record Yields Several Centuries of Data (Cycle B)
An excellent website from Woods Hole Institute explaining how ocean sediments help us to understand global climate.


Skaters in the Bois de Boulogne (Cycle B)
This Parisian scene was painted in 1868.


The Little Ice Age, Ca. 1300-1870 (Cycle B)
This is a website that investigates not only causes of the Little Ice Age, but also human progress made during the LIA in Europe. It discusses that progress in terms of social, scientific , and economic changes.


Astronomical Theory of Climate Change (Cycle C)
Describes Milankovitch cycles and implications for climate change.


Failing ocean current raises fears of mini ice age (Cycle C)
This article describes how changes in the Gulf stream may lead to a cooling of temperatures in Europe.


Sample Investigations:


Are There Regional Differences in Climate Change? (Cycle A)
This investigation is a little more complicated, but well-worth the extra work. If you modify the original task of this EET module and specify the time period with the temporal button, you can get some great data on the regional effects of the climate during the end of the Little Ice Age. (The data sets are from real historical weather data, so there aren't numbers for the early part of the LIA)
Difficulty: advanced


Ocean Currents and Salinity (Cycle A)
Since one idea is that the cold of the little Ice Age was partially due to the slowing of the Atlantic current (and since this may very well occur again with increased fresh water entering the oceans with global warming) looking at the role salinity plays on the ocean currents would be one possibility.
Difficulty: beginner


Ice, Ice, Baby (Cycle B)
In this New York Times Learning Network lesson, students learn about the causes and effects of the melting ice formations in Antarctica; they then research different aspects of the topic in order to create a news special.
Difficulty: intermediate


Little Ice Age: Big Chill (Cycle B)
This is based upon a History Channel® documentary and contains exercises on historical art and the ocean conveyor belt.
Difficulty: intermediate


Sunspots (Cycle B)
This interactive website has some good clips of websites and two web-based activities about sunspots that you can do to better understand them.
Difficulty: intermediate


Climate Discovery Teacher's Guide (Cycle C)
"In this unit, students explore how scientists study climates of the recent and ancient past. Students model the methods of scientists through inquiry activities, investigating real data to learn more about changes in climate over the past millennium."

Difficulty: intermediate


Fluffy Snow to Glacier Ice (Cycle C)
"In this activity, students build on their growing knowledge of ice and glacier growth. The students examine images of core samples and make observations about the decreasing size of gas bubbles with increasing depth in the core. The students model permeability. From this experiment, the students develop an understanding of the movement of air through snow and ice and why this information is critical to researchers studying the past climate of our Earth."

Difficulty: beginner


TRACKING GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE: Microfossil Record of the Planetary Heat Pump (Cycle C)
In the author's (Paul Loubere) words: the object of this exercise set is to integrate knowledge from several scientific disciplines and learn something interesting about the way the world works. .. This topic is of basic scientific interest, and it has real importance to the growing societal interest in global climate change. This is an exercise in global climate change because the climate system is driven by the heat distribution process.
Difficulty: advanced




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
        • Earth's history
        • Earth in the solar system
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
        • Origin and evolution of the earth system
        • Origin and evolution of the universe
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How physical systems affect human systems
      • The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources
      Knowledge of geography enables people to develop an understanding of the relationships between people, places, and environments over time — that is, of Earth as it was, is, and might be. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to apply geography to interpret the past
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