Book Review: The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History by Brian Fagan

Book Review: The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History by Brian Fagan
Book Review: The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History by Brian Fagan
Book Review: The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History by Brian Fagan

No matter which side of the current Global Warming debate you happen to be on, and especially if you are undecided about the issue, this book is a must-read. It is a short book, only 246 pages, and well illustrated with graphs, charts and maps to help make sense out of the phenomena that literally changed history between 1300 and 1859.

The story is told in the lyrical language of a born novelist, but its message is clear as Fagan demonstrates how climate changes affect food supplies and basic living conditions, and even influences world events.

The book puts the planet’s current climate conditions into perspective by describing those conditions experienced throughout the world over the last thousand years or so. He uses both scientific data gathered from a number of disciplines and anecdotal data drawn from ancient records and contemporary accounts to tell the story of a remarkable period in human history.

Where Fagan needs to express technical terms, he provides excellent explanations of those terms and how they apply to his subject. Even the most technically-challenged reader will be able to follow his discussions. And he provides ample charts and graphs to show general trends in weather patterns and how weather patterns across the planet affect local and regional conditions.

Fagan explains how natural phenomena such as volcanoes and other disasters can affect weather patterns over many years. The role of the sun in our climate may include sunspots (or the lack of them), solar wind activity, and solar radiation fluctuations.

Much of the focus of Fagan’s book details ways in which global warming and cooling trends affect agriculture in various parts of the world, and how the Little Ice Age and the earlier “Medieval Warming Period” contributed to massive starvation and the rise of diseases that decimated Europe and other parts of the world.

Fagan divided his book into four parts. He begins with what historians call the Medieval Warm Period when the ice retreated far to the north and allowed the exploration and settlement of areas near to the North Polar region, such as Greenland and North America. Then, in Part 2, “Cooling Begins,” he describes changes in water temperatures, glaciation, and generally cooler temperatures and the resulting agricultural and trade problems.

In Part Three he discusses the changes in agriculture that enabled the populations of Europe, Asia, and other regions to survive food shortages caused by the extremely cold conditions. These adaptations to the colder climates resulted in development of many of the innovative farming methods still practiced today throughout the world. And in Part Four, “The Modern Warm Period, he shows how population growth, deforestation, and other potentially catastrophic conditions may be leading to a runaway Greenhouse Effect.

The reader should pay particular attention to Fagan’s descriptions of conditions during the various periods of both the Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age. As he points out, weather conditions at the ends of both periods became extremely unsettled, and his descriptions and quotes from contemporary records sound remarkably like some of the conditions we are currently experiencing.

The book contains information that is both frightening and reassuring. It is entirely possible that the earth is now experiencing the climatological upheavals that characterized the changes form the Medieval Warm Period to another Ice Age. And, as Fagan shows, we do not yet understand enough about the causes of global warming to accurately make that judgment.

The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History is published by Basic Books and available through as well as through local booksellers. I recommend that anyone interested in global warming pick up a copy.