It produced floods deep enough to carry away cattle, and winds powerful enough to sink flotillas. It generated heart-stopping deep freezes and weeks-long snowstorms.
Weather extremes were no picnic for Britons from the 1500s to the 1700s, a period historians have dubbed the “little ice age.”
But because weather was something one only experienced and didn’t measure – thermometers hadn’t yet been invented and ‘tornado’ hadn’t entered the lexicon – many climate particulars of those miserable days have been lost to time.
Now, Western researchers have pulled those details into the present by scouring historical narratives, such as diaries and political treatises, and pinpointed specifically what extreme weather events took place, when and where.
Those details are part of a new geographic information system (GIS)-mapped database full of primary-source stories that illuminate daily particulars and larger trends of extreme weather during the little ice age in England.
“I wanted to get to this idea of how people relate to the weather, especially how we relate to weather when it’s not behaving like we’re used to. Are there things that we can learn from it?” said literary historian Madeline Bassnett, a Western professor in the department of English and writing studies and director of the project.
Identifying the effects of climate change on people and the environment 500 years ago could well presage how we are able, or unable, to manage similar experiences today: flooding or droughts that lead to crop loss, famines and economic collapse; unseasonably cold winters that freeze livestock where they stand; and howling storms that sink ships and shift the winds of geopolitical conflict.
“The material that we’ve been gathering is totally different from anything that’s been gathered,” said Bassnett, who noted she received a lot of early guidance from data librarian Kristi Thompson and data librarian Zack MacDonald.
Third-year PhD student Daryl Wakunick scoured thousands of pages of contemporary letters, diaries, pamphlets and volumes, including Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, a 16th-century record of politics and literature.
“I looked for any mention of rain, sleet, snow, flood, earthquakes, even comets, and the context around it. And then we put it all into a spreadsheet, that turned into a database, that became an interactive GIS map.”
The effort also involved translating old locations into current placenames, said Liz Sutherland, GIS specialist in the Western Libraries map and data centre.
“I got the fun part of the project,” Sutherland said. “A spreadsheet is boring, even if it has really informative and exciting data in it. And so when I have the database, I get to make a map out of it. Then we can start to pick out trends and we can create a little chart showing the year-by-year distribution of the severe weather that we’re observing.
“All of a sudden, that becomes a tool that can be used by other researchers, not just in the arts and humanities but expanding beyond that.”
The tool is searchable by date, location, weather event and by impact on people, livestock, and natural built environment.
Some researchers with the Western-based Northern Tornadoes Project (for whom Sutherland is also the GIS-mapper) have shown interest in the data. Bassnett noted literary historians, climate historians, geographers and environmental scientists can also glean information from it.
Biologists, for example, have been studying tree rings to learn something about the period. “But tree rings don’t tell you how fast the wind was blowing and they don’t give you context. They don’t tell you about how it felt to be in that extreme weather,” Sutherland said. “I think there’s something to be said about combining the two sciences and seeing how that might impact people’s understanding of the climate at that time.”
The project is funded through a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Bassnett said data librarian Kristi Thompson, who provided early guidance into setting up the database, and map librarian Zack MacDonald were also pivotal parts of the team.
Lessons from history
The causes of the Little Ice Age are not known for certain; however, climatologists contend it may have had its roots in reduced solar output, increased volcanic activity, or a shift in atmospheric high- and low-pressure circulation.
To Bassnett, though, a central lesson was that people living through it were forced to adapt to changing conditions.
“A lot of the response to climate change today seems to be, ‘well, how do we control this?’ And one of the interesting things I’m finding in this early research is that there was much less of an interest in controlling weather and much more of an acceptance of having to work with it and be flexible and adjust. I think there was a different conception then of human relationships with the weather and with the natural world more generally.
“Maybe we can learn from the past and see what we can integrate today in terms of our own thinking and grappling with our future.”
Bassnett and the rest of the team will be discussing their research during a public talk and presentation to the Western Early Modern Society on April 22.