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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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What ended the Little Ice Age?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate Advanced

The sun was warming up then, but the sun hasn’t been warming since 1970.

Climate Myth...

We're coming out of the Little Ice Age

"The global temperature has been rising at a steady trend rate of 0.5°C per century since the end of the little ice age in the 1700s (when the Thames River would freeze over every winter; the last time it froze over was 1804). On top of the trend are oscillations that last about thirty years in each direction. In 2009 we are where the green arrow points [on graph showing said oscillations- SkS], with temperature leveling off. The pattern suggests that the world has entered a period of slight cooling until about 2030."  (David Evans)

At a glance

Where were you in 2009? It seems an age ago now. Climate science denial was everywhere. Skeptical Science was just two years old. It was like whack-a-mole - as one myth was dealt with, more would pop up.

Among the talking-points emerging around that time was the one that global warming was simply the planet recovering from the Little Ice Age (LIA). The LIA was a period of regionally cold conditions, usually said to have occurred between 1350 and 1850. Glaciers in the European Alps reversed their decline and advanced. In London, UK, the tidal Thames froze over sufficiently for 'frost-fairs' to be held on the ice, between 1608 and 1814. Their frequency is often exaggerated; roughly one winter in ten would be a realistic estimate.

Why was it so cold? Here, time travel would be wonderful. In the absence of that, we have had to develop more ingenious ways of reconstructing what happened.

A key factor is the LIA's regional nature. Its most dramatic effects were in Europe and North America. That suggests there was an element of 'internal climate variability' involved. The latter term refers to how heat is moved around within Earth's climate system, as opposed to being added to or removed from it.

During the LIA there were 'external forcing' factors too - these are things that do add or remove heat from the climate system. There was an extended period of minimal Solar activity, known as the Maunder Minimum. However, the Maunder Minimum took place between 1637 and 1719, more than 200 years into the LIA. It cannot have caused the initial cooling.

There were several colossal volcanic eruptions during the LIA, such as Laki in 1783 and Tambora in 1815. The Samalas eruption on the Indonesian island of Lombok was also huge, but occurred in 1257, almost a century before the LIA started. Volcanogenic cooling episodes typically last just a few years, but they wouldn't have helped: Laki and Tambora likely prolonged the cold conditions.

Recent research is instead hinting that the LIA was triggered by a dramatic weakening of the Gulf Stream. That was caused by warm ocean currents penetrating far into the Arctic, causing a dramatic breakup of the sea-ice. Resultant ice-floes were 'exported' en-masse out into the North Atlantic, where they melted, generating cool freshwater. This process peaked around the year 1350. The overloading by all that cool freshwater disrupted ocean circulation patterns and a rapid regional cooling followed.

At the other end of the LIA, what warmed things back up? Firstly, the 1850 end-date is not necessarily reflected in temperature datasets. These show a steady warming trend that only emerged after 1910, steepening and becoming less interrupted after 1970. That is not a regional but global pattern, suggesting that unlike the LIA, an external forcing was dominant. There's one obvious one - our pumping out of greenhouse gases.

The year 2009 was full of predictions from well-known deniers that we were entering a cooling trend. Fourteen years on, there's no sign of that!

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!

Further details

Some climate science deniers like to insist that because the climate has changed dramatically in the past without man’s intervention, the current changes are also a natural event. You may be familiar with paintings depicting Londoners skating on the frozen River Thames. These mostly date from a period when Northern Hemisphere winters were more severe. The beginning and end of this cold period are subject to various interpretations, but the period is referred to as the Little Ice Age (LIA) and it occurred between the 14th and 19th centuries.

Limited History

If we are to understand the LIA, we need to figure out what caused it. Scientists have examined a number of important strands of evidence about the LIA. These include key natural drivers of climate change such as Solar activity, volcanoes, the Arctic and ocean heat circulation.

The activity of the Sun can be assessed by looking at proxies – processes that we know to be affected by the Sun’s activity. One of these is the formation of the radioactive isotope Carbon-14 (C14) in the atmosphere. The half-life of the C14 isotope is 5730±40 years. Radioactive carbon is mainly produced by cosmic particles reaching Earth's upper atmosphere. These particles vary in abundance through time. During times of high Solar activity, the Solar wind shields the Earth, whereas when activity is low, that shield is weaker. Thus, it is possible to deduce past Solar activity from changes in the concentration of C14 in the atmosphere. Because plants can absorb C14, past levels can be deduced by measuring C14 in tree rings and in other accurately age-constrained biogenic materials. Hence, we can estimate how active the Sun was in the past. A graph showing the Sun’s activity over the last few thousand years is presented in fig. 1.

Long-term sunspot-number reconstruction from C14 data.

Fig. 1: Long-term sunspot-number reconstruction from C14 data. All data are decade averages. The Maunder Minimum is visible near the far right of the reconstruction. Source: Usoskin (2017).

Marked deviation from the norm in Solar activity may be expected to have effects on the climate. The Maunder Minimum, a long period when the Sun was particularly inactive, lasted from 1637 to 1719 (Owens et al. 2017). If the 1350 onset of the LIA is accepted, it cannot have been initiated by the Maunder Minimum, although it may well have helped prolong it.

Volcanic activity was high during this period of history. We know from modern studies of volcanism that major eruptions can have strong cooling effects on the climate, albeit for a limited number of years. Notably violent eruptions occurred during the LIA, such as that of Laki in Iceland in 1783 and Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia, in 1815. These were big enough to be detected in ice-cores as sulphate-rich layers caused by sulphuric acid aerosol fall-out. They cannot have caused the LIA but they would almost certainly have prolonged it.

Going further back in time, the Samalas eruption, on the Indonesian island of Lombok, was colossal. It too left a sulphate-mark in ice-cores. The only thing is that the Samalas eruption occurred in 1257, almost a century before the accepted start of the LIA.

Socioeconomic factors may be relevant. Sudden and major population decreases occurred at this time, due to the Black Death and other pandemics. In turn, that would have resulted in a decrease of agriculture and reforestation of agricultural land. Such changes might have had a role, but how big is uncertain.

Since the original version of this rebuttal was published, advances in tracking the former extent of Arctic sea-ice have been dramatic. They are starting to provide important clues regarding the onset of the LIA. Miles et al. (2020) presented a reconstruction of sea ice export from the Arctic Ocean over the past 1400 years, using a spatial network of proxy records. They found robust evidence for a previously unknown period of extreme export of sea ice that commenced abruptly around the year 1300 and terminated in the late 1300s. The pulse of ice along East Greenland resulted in downstream increases in polar waters and ocean stratification that was sustained during subsequent centuries. Such an intense injection of fresh water into the North Atlantic Ocean could have so disrupted the ocean's circulation that the warm water currents of the Gulf Stream were weakened. That would have inhibited their moving so much heat around the Northern Hemisphere. Such a change would in turn have cooled countries adjacent to the North Atlantic, in a regional cooling phenomenon - which the LIA certainly was.

Can We Draw a Conclusion?

To some extent, the climatic shift of the LIA remains subject to speculation. Variable output from the Sun was most marked long after the LIA onset. From the end of the LIA to the 1950s, the Sun’s output increased, so its role may have been important. But since then, the Sun has slowly grown quieter, yet the temperature on Earth has continued to go up (fig. 2). This shows that whilst the Sun has an obvious role as an external climate forcing agent, it's not the only one out there. Modern global warming is mostly the result of adding manmade greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as the result of fossil fuel combustion.

 TSI vs T

Fig. 2: Annual global temperature change (thin light red) with 11 year moving average of temperature (thick dark red). Temperature from NASA GISS. Annual Total Solar Irradiance (thin light blue) with 11 year moving average of TSI (thick dark blue). TSI from 1880 to 1978 from Krivova et al. 2007. TSI from 1979 to 2015 from the World Radiation Center (see their PMOD index page for data updates). Plots of the most recent solar irradiance can be found at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics LISIRD site.

Instead, internal climate variability, driven by abrupt and drastic changes to Arctic sea-ice, are increasingly being pointed at as the trigger for the LIA. Such an event has now been detected and will come under further scrutiny in the coming years. The end of the LIA coincided with recovering Solar output plus increasing greenhouse gas emissions with growing industrialisation. Like many changes in climate, there's no single cause and different mechanisms can dominate at different times. Today, there's no doubt about the chief agent of rising temperatures and it's not the Sun!

Last updated on 5 May 2024 by John Mason. View Archives

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Comments 1 to 25 out of 77:

  1. Mr. Cook: I think the whole flaw in the climate change argument can be expressed examining the words you have just used when saying "What the science really says": "The main driver of the warming from the Little Ice Age to 1940 was the warming sun with a small contribution from volcanic activity. However, solar activity leveled off after 1940 and the net influence from sun and volcano since 1940 has been slight cooling." OK, fine. While I don't necessarily agree with the sun portion (see Reply to Lockwood and Fröhlich - The persistent role of the Sun in climate forcing here -, let's say everything you have said there is true. Even so, that does NOT automatically mean: "Greenhouse gases have been the main contributor of warming since 1970." Do we have any direct proof of that? Do we know exactly how much radiative forcing the greenhouse gases we emit produce? And do we know how much they produce when within the extremely complex climate system, as opposed to within laboratory conditions? Or is it just an assumption, considering we have exhausted all the possible natural causes that we can think of? I think that there may be other natural causes (maybe even ones we have not yet discovered) causing this kind of warming, at least to a certain extent. Syun-Ichi Akasofu here ( wrote about the possibility that much of the current warming could be simplified down to a natural 0.5 degrees C linear trend, with superimposed fluctuations and oscillations. Most importantly, he also notices that global warming has essentially stopped since 2000. This lack of warming does not agree with IPCC predictions. Instead it gives more credibility to this theory, as it could be explained as the most recent oscillation winding down and continuing on the 0.5 degrees C linear trend.
    Response: The direct proof of the radiative forcing from rising CO2 is explored in the empirical evidence for an enhanced greenhouse effect.

    Re Akasofu's assertion that "global warming has essentially stopped since 2000", presumably, this is based on the HadCRUT surface temperature record which omits areas of the globe of extreme warming in recent years. A more comprehensive analysis of the Earth's energy imbalance finds the planet continued to accumulate heat past 2000 right up to the end of 2008 (where the analysis ends). Global warming has not stopped.
  2. No, I'm not just looking at the CRU measurements. Take a look at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies measuements ( They also show global warming slowing down and almost stopping at about 2000. At the very least, if global warming has not stopped, it has definitely slowed down quite a bit, against what the IPCC has predicted.
  3. Sorry, ignore the part about GISS. Check out the University of Alabama in Huntsville's measurements:
  4. michaelkourlas, global warming didn't stop nor slowed down, at least if you mean the trend. Maybe temperature did, but it has the bad habit of going up and down in the short run; it always did and presumably will continue to do so. And the neither the IPCC nor the climatologists ever said it will not.
  5. I understand that the overall global warming trend has gone on for hundreds of years since the little ice age. I am not disputing that. What I am disputing is how much warming there has been since the 1980s, which is the warming we would be responsible for. We only started emitting massive amounts of CO2 in 1945 and the first time the temperature started rising after that was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Thus, the problem is that all the IPCC looks at to make its predictions and recommendations and such is one 30 year trend from 1980-present. 30 years is not really enough to completely determine whether or not humans are having a sizable impact on the climate system in the first place, but if there is a possibility that last 10 years of that series do not conform to the predictions that the IPCC have made... it really throws the IPCC's predictions into doubt.
  6. michaelkourlas, if 30 years are not enough to determine a trend i do not understand how 10 years can be enough. And it's not just 30 years, although smaller the contribution of ghg is sizeble even in the first half of the last century. Also, that the models did not predict the last 10 years is a mith, not least because they never attempted to predict them. I'd suggest to read how meaningfull comparison should be done.
  7. I'm not trying to make predictions off of a 10 year trend. All I am saying is that 30 years, 10 years of which do not follow predicted trends, is not enough to establish that we are having a large effect on climate. In response to "the models did not predict the last 10 years...because they never attempted to predict them", the link you gave actually shows the measurements not following the IPCC predictions.
  8. michaelkourlas, if i got it right, 30 years are enough to establish a trend. If this is true, then the last 10 years are well inside the measured variability and cannot falsify the trend in any way. But, given that you think that fig. 1 in the link i posted before "shows the measurements not following the IPCC predictions" you problably can say almost anything you like. The numbers tell a different story, though.
  9. One can establish a trend from just a few years. The question is whether or not that trend is enough to justify spending large amounts of money and devastating certain economic sectors in the name of 'saving humanity'. I don't think 30 years of data, 10 of which show a decline in temperature, is sufficient for this. As for the IPCC predictions, maybe I'm making a mistake, but I thought that the black line was the IPCC trend, and the blue and red lines showing temperature have deviated from that line since 2005. That's at least 1/6th of the 30 year trend off course.
  10. This is a good site for examining IPCC predictions and their failures.
  11. Also look here for the natural vs anthropogenic prediction information (
  12. michaelkourlas wrote "maybe I'm making a mistake, but I thought that the black line was the IPCC trend." Michael, you are indeed making a mistake, as Riccardo tried to explain to you. The IPCC prediction is the entire gray area in that figure. The black line is merely the mean, which is merely the most probable point-by-point portion--the central tendency of the prediction, not the range of the prediction. The range is the gray area. Nobody, least of all the IPCC, expects the actual values to always fall exactly on the line. Nobody even expects the actual values to always fall within the gray area. Instead the expectation is that sometimes the actual values will be above the line and sometimes below the line, but on average they will fall more or less the same amount of time above as below the line, and almost all of the time they will fall within the gray area. When you pick out the most recent four years as being below the black line, you are conveniently ignoring the several periods before that being above the line. Oh, but then you could point to the previous couple years being below the line. But then you'd be ignoring the years before that being far above the line.... And so on. If you play that game all the way back to the start of the graph, you see that on average the actual values spend nearly as much time above as below the line, and always inside the gray area. There are formal, systematic ways of doing the above analysis. They were not invented for climatology. They have been used for many decades in many different fields of science and technology. They are being applied to climatology in exactly the same way. You can start to learn about them by reading Tamino's post "How Long?"
  13. michaelkourlas, you can surely use just a few years to calculate a trend but you can not establish it this way; it would be just a mathematical exercise. Physics, and climate science as well, uses mathematics as a tool but they also give a meaning to the numbers. When the data points have a "noise" of about 0.2 °C and a trend of about 0.17 °C/decade even common sense should convince you that it makes no sense at all to use just 7 years to calculate a meaningful trend. If you really want to understand what is going on with our climate, it would be a good idea not to use "blind" google searches. You know, the internet is a great tool, but you can find almost anything you want. Given that we not always have the knowledge to state the credibility of a source by ourselves, an a priori reasoned choice is mandatory. Or anyone can fool you.
  14. This is the trend I buy on the warming we are seeing now. I do think it is part of the recovery from the LIA and this illustrates the way it rises, but takes beaks for a few decades here and there.
  15. cruzn246, previously you accused other people of relying exclusively on correlation to infer causation. But here you are relying on your superficial extrapolation of past trends, ignoring the causal analyses that are explained in the post at the top of this page! Be sure to click on the "Advanced" version's tab. Read more, type less.
  16. "But here you are relying on your superficial extrapolation of past trends, ignoring the causal analyses that are explained in the post at the top of this page!" Oh my God! I didn't know I had to buy the analysis. Pardon me for having free thought. Excuse me, but climatology is as much about trends as anything. We may not be able to completely explain them, but we see them and recognize them. Heck, the analysis at the top pretty much says that the exact cause of the LIA is a bit of a mystery, but I guess they have everything else after that plumb figured out. :-)
  17. You can see in the first graph they use for the carbon 14 that the last measure is higher than the medieval maximum, but they dismiss the sun as causing this continued warm-up. Then they can the carbon-14 and go to the solar cycles for the next graph. They are not the same thing. Go figure. They could have used this for the whole period.
  18. #16: "I didn't know I had to buy the analysis. Pardon me for having free thought." You don't have to buy they analysis. But if you don't you should present some form of analysis of your own. Otherwise, 'free thought' is just opinion. For example, what is the basis of the straight line in the figure you show in #14? For that matter, where does that graph come from? What is the cause of those wavy ups and downs that ride your straight line? There are temperature reconstructions going back to the LIA (some available in the articles below); yet your graph projects the same straight line backwards as well as forwards. What is the justification for that? See Global warming and the unstoppable 1500 year cycle and The LIA and How we know the sun isn't causing global warming for starters. In my former life in the oil business, we used to say 'a straight line trend is your best friend' at which point someone would reply 'until it stops being straight.'
  19. muoncounter: "For example, what is the basis of the straight line in the figure you show in #14? For that matter, where does that graph come from?" Since Google is still our friend :D's from here: Two Natural Components of the Recent Climate Change (3/30/2009): (1) The Recovery from the Little Ice Age (A Possible Cause of Global Warming) and (2) The Multi-decadal Oscillation (The Recent Halting of the Warming) Syun-Ichi Akasofu, International Arctic Research Center, Fairbanks, University of Alaska
  20. More on Syun-Ichi Akasofu: click! Agrees with: Ray Evans, Gerhard Gerlich, Roy Spencer, John Christy, Sarah Palin, Vincent R. Gray, Qing-Bin Lu, Denis Rancourt Disagrees with: Martin Parry, IPCC, Al Gore, Svante Arrhenius, Rajendra Pachauri, Gavin Schmidt, RealClimate
  21. 19: "Two Natural Components of the Recent Climate Change" Wow, a paper (published, when?) that sets out to fit straight lines to data and ends up with ... straight lines. And uses the fact that you can fit straight lines to data as proof that straight lines are appropriate: "An intuitive approximation of the changes shown in Figure 1a (NASA:GISS). It is shown as the red line." "The red straight line was drawn by the JMA." And once 0.5C/century is established as the slope of all these lines (with the explanation in Fig 2a that it is "caused by natural cause" -- I didn't make that up), said line is projected back to 1500. Very insightful work. I enjoyed this quote from p. 7: "Although the global average temperature (T) changes can be approximated by a linear relation as a fraction of time (t) (T = at), CO2 changes are more like T= bt^2, suggesting that the T-CO2 relation is not simple." But temperature itself is a simple straight line +/- some decadal ups and downs? I found the graph on watts up, doc, where the word was ... it's all good.
  22. "For example, what is the basis of the straight line in the figure you show in #14?" The line is simply placed there by the man who made the chart. Fits pretty good. For that matter, where does that graph come from? My, you get your shorts in a wad when something contrary comes up. What is the cause of those wavy ups and downs that ride your straight line? Decadal shifts in the NAO and PDO most likely. It's an accurate temperature record so what does it matter? "There are temperature reconstructions going back to the LIA (some available in the articles below); yet your graph projects the same straight line backwards as well as forwards." It's not an important part of the graph. He is just trying to show warming from 1880 through 200. God, i see so many graphs from the pro folks that start in 1980, what is the problem with this? What is the justification for that?
    Response: Please use the preview when posting anything other than plain text. Thanks.
  23. Re: Akasofu Kevin Trenberth offers up some perspective on Akasofu. Speaks for itself. The Yooper
  24. "A long-term increase in the Earth's average temperature is caused by a change in the planetary energy balance (incoming vs. outgoing energy), also known as a 'radiative forcing.' If the amounts of incoming and outgoing energy are equal, the planet is in equilibrium and its average temperature will not increase on average." I couldn't resist commenting on this. Are we in equilibrium? Is it possible to be in equilibrium? Think about it folks. Do we know exactly what output from the sun produces this state? I truly doubt we are ever in equilibrium. It's just such a hard thing to achieve in any system, much less an extremely complicated one like ours.
  25. @cruzn246: I don't think you understand what equilibrium means in this context.

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