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How Climate Made History, 1300-1850

by Brian Fagan

Pub Date: March 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-465-02271-5
Publisher: Basic

A compelling subject passably treated by prolific archaeology author Fagan (Floods, Famines, and Emperors, 1999, etc.).

Paleoclimatology, the study of weather in history, is likely to receive increased interest as discussions of global warming begin to heat up. Fagan argues that while environmental determinism is “intellectually bankrupt,” climate change remains “the ignored player on the historical stage.” Taking an admittedly Eurocentric approach, he shows how such weather systems as the North Atlantic Oscillation Index produced what is known as the Little Ice Age, a period (from roughly 1300 to 1850) of sharp weather fluctuations and generally cold and wet conditions that contributed to such disastrous food dearths as the Irish Potato Famine. Several of Fagan’s analyses are very well-done: the expansion of Norse exploration in the North Atlantic during the warm weather that preceded the Little Ice Age, the impact of volcanic eruptions (such as Mount Tambora’s in 1815, leading to the “Year Without Summer”), and glacial activity as a barometer of global temperature change. At times, however, Fagan’s historical descriptions are more general history than specific paleoclimatology (for example, his in-depth but fairly non-climatological discussion of the Irish Potato Famine), and the logic of his arguments are too often lost in chronological accounts that are unnecessarily hard to follow. He doesn’t really hit his stride until the closing chapter, in which, in an eloquent summary, he discusses our current trend toward global warming and what a study of the Little Ice Age reveals.

Largely overcast, despite some patches of sunshine. (29 tables and figures, not seen)