The natives did a bunk
- A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America by Sam White
Harvard, 361 pp, £23.95, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 97192 9
When my editor asked for dust-jacket ideas, I said I wanted something with snow. My book was about 17th-century America, and for all the sweltering, maize-shrivelling summers, it was the winters that had stuck in my mind. I’d found the perfect image: George Henry Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church (1867), a depiction of settlers in New Plymouth trudging through their first winter. Why the snow seemed important I’m not sure. Perhaps extreme cold, and unpreparedness for it, enhances the drama of history, pointing up heroism and hardship. In the time I was writing about there were snowflakes the size of shillings. Beards froze so that men couldn’t get bottles to their lips; bread rattled on the communion plate. In December 1630, a shoemaker from Essex, desperate to find food, sailed a shallop down the New England coast accompanied by his young daughter and two others. A storm drove them to Cape Cod, where feet had to be chipped away from the ice in the boat. They tried to make a fire, but had no hatchet to cut wood. The party lay exposed to the cold all night. Everyone except the girl and one frostbitten man died. Their Indian rescuers hacked graves from the solid earth.
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Vol. 40 No. 15 · 2 August 2018
Malcolm Gaskill is worried about global warming, but his piece on the Little Ice Age (LRB, 19 July) should instead serve to remind us of the vastly greater danger we would face were the world to become substantially cooler. As late as the 1880s, we experienced another mini ice age, this time caused by the eruption of Krakatoa; we would simply have no response if, say, the Yellowstone Caldera were to erupt. Perhaps the threat that the Siberian or Deccan traps might unleash massive amounts of lava has gone away, but suppose there are other such natural dangers lurking? We do not know enough about the interactions between solar activity, ocean currents, volcanic activity, planetary motion etc to be in a position to make definitive judgments as to whether we are causing catastrophic climate change or helping to avoid another cooling period. Extreme cold weather, whatever the cause, remains a far greater threat to civilisation and health than the rise in global temperature. Another ice age, with mile-high glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere, isn’t something that can be ruled out.
Vol. 40 No. 16 · 30 August 2018
Stephen Essrig is worried about a new ice age, but is wrong to suggest it presents a greater danger than global warming (Letters, 2 August). We have an internal temperature of 37°C that we control via perspiration (or air-conditioning). We cannot survive above a ‘wet bulb temperature’ of 35°C, meaning a temperature of 35°C at 100 per cent humidity, or at a higher temperature with lower humidity. As things stand, the planetary surface temperature will increase by 2°C over the course of this century owing to carbon dioxide and methane already emitted. These two gases are respectively at 1.45 and 2.5 times their 1750 pre-industrial levels, having been steady before that for the 11,700 years since the most recent ice age.
There isn’t the remotest chance that we will spontaneously enter another ice age. However, we do in any case now have the proven ability to raise the planetary temperature (by 0.8°C over the last hundred years). The most efficient and safe way to do this is to release methane, which has a 35 times greater warming effect per molecule than carbon dioxide and remains in the atmosphere for just eight years before being oxidised to carbon dioxide and water. So if there did happen to be a cataclysmic volcanic eruption or unexpected meteor fall leading to a drop in global temperatures, our response should be to release the appropriate amount of methane to keep us warm even in a world of temporarily darkened skies, with controlled recovery in a decade or two. In the world as we know it, however, we are going to be cooked alive unless we rapidly change to solar and wind power.
Little Compton, Rhode Island
Stephen Essrig’s fear that a new ice age is imminent is unfounded, with or without deforestation and fossil-fuel burning. While large volcanic eruptions can cool the climate, their effects are shortlived because the erupted material settles out of the stratosphere and is rained out of the lower atmosphere in a matter of months. Geologists used to think that the next ice age was close at hand because the intervals between recent ice ages were comparable to the time since the end of the last one, 11,700 years. Predictable changes in Earth’s orbit, caused by the gravitational tugs of our planetary neighbours, pace the succession of ice ages by changing the distribution of solar heating across the seasons of the year. Glaciers grow when summers are persistently cool enough to allow some of the winter snowfall to survive the melting season. The Earth’s present orbit is different from those that characterised recent ice ages. The last time the orbit was similar to the present one was nearly half a million years ago. At that time, the intervals between ice ages were far longer than between recent ice ages, 25,000 to 30,000 years. By the time the next ice age is due to begin, much of the carbon dioxide gas released during our burst of fossil fuel burning will have been taken up by the ocean. It will no longer keep us warm but its legacy will still be felt in ocean acidification.
Paul F. Hoffman
Victoria, British Columbia
Stephen Essrig considers the arrival of the next ice age some millennia hence ‘a far greater threat to civilisation and health than the rise in global temperature’. Tell that to the Neanderthals and their Siberian cousins, the Denisovians. Civilisation emerged from aeons of Neolithic tedium as the last ice age receded, and the Little Ice Age failed to take the steam out of the Enlightenment or freeze the Renaissance in its tracks.
Vol. 40 No. 17 · 13 September 2018
The desperate state of the Irish in the 1590s – ‘like anatomies of death’ – was a result, according to Malcolm Gaskill, of ‘rain and snow of an intensity and duration unprecedented in living memory’ (LRB, 19 July). The quotation regarding the condition of the Irish is from Edmund Spenser, but he was writing about the Second Desmond Rebellion of 1579-83 and the famine caused by the English scorched earth policy when quelling it.
Ardfield, Co. Cork