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At a glance - What ended the Little ice Age?

Posted on 14 May 2024 by John Mason, BaerbelW, Ken Rice

On February 14, 2023 we announced our Rebuttal Update Project. This included an ask for feedback about the added "At a glance" section in the updated basic rebuttal versions. This weekly blog post series highlights this new section of one of the updated basic rebuttal versions and serves as a "bump" for our ask. This week features "What ended the Little Ice Age?". More will follow in the upcoming weeks. Please follow the Further Reading link at the bottom to read the full rebuttal and to join the discussion in the comment thread there.


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!

Click for Further details

In case you'd like to explore more of our recently updated rebuttals, here are the links to all of them:

Myths with link to rebuttal Short URLs
Ice age predicted in the 1970s
It hasn't warmed since 1998
Antarctica is gaining ice
CRU emails suggest conspiracy
What evidence is there for the hockey stick
CO2 lags temperature
Climate's changed before
It's the sun
Temperature records are unreliable
The greenhouse effect and the 2nd law of thermodynamics
We're heading into an ice age
Positives and negatives of global warming
The 97% consensus on global warming
Global cooling - Is global warming still happening?
How reliable are climate models?
Can animals and plants adapt to global warming?
What's the link between cosmic rays and climate change?
Is Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth accurate?
Are glaciers growing or retreating?
Ocean acidification: global warming's evil twin
The human fingerprint in global warming
Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming
How do we know more CO2 is causing warming?
Explaining how the water vapor greenhouse effect works
The tricks employed by the flawed OISM Petition Project to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change
Is extreme weather caused by global warming?
How substances in trace amounts can cause large effects
How much is sea level rising?
Is CO2 a pollutant?
Does cold weather disprove global warming?
Do volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans?
How do human CO2 emissions compare to natural CO2 emissions?
Climate scientists could make more money in other careers
How reliable are CO2 measurements?
Do high levels of CO2 in the past contradict the warming effect of CO2?
What is the net feedback of clouds?
Global warming vs climate change
Is Mars warming?
How the IPCC is more likely to underestimate the climate response
How sensitive is our climate?
Evidence for global warming
Has the greenhouse effect been falsified?
Does breathing contribute to CO2 buildup in the atmosphere?
What is causing the increase in atmospheric CO2?
What is methane's contribution to global warming?
Plants cannot live on CO2 alone
Is the CO2 effect saturated?
Greenhouse warming 100 times greater than waste heat
How will global warming affect polar bears?
The runaway greenhouse effect on Venus
What climate change is happening to other planets in the solar system?
Has Arctic sea ice returned to normal?
Was Greenland really green in the past?
Is Greenland gaining or losing ice?
Human activity is driving retreat of Arctic sea ice
The albedo effect and global warming
Does CO2 always correlate with temperature?
Human fingerprints on climate change rule out natural cycles
Global warming and the El Niño Southern Oscillation
The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is not causing global warming
Is the science settled?
The difference between weather and climate
Clearing up misconceptions regarding 'hide the decline'
Tree-ring proxies and the divergence problem'
What ended the Little Ice Age?


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