With all the recent bizarre headlines with regard to Britain forecasted to be hit by a severe winter storm I have taken the opportunity to look at our last little ice age.


Brueghel the Elder, 1565

The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period. While it was not a true ice age, the term was introduced into the scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939. The NASA Earth Observatory notes three particularly cold intervals: one beginning about 1650, another about 1770, and the last in 1850, each separated by intervals of slight warming. Several causes have been proposed: cyclical lows in solar radiation, heightened volcanic activity, changes in the ocean circulation, an inherent variability in global climate, or decreases in the human population.


Last written records of the Norse Greenlanders are from a 1408 marriage in the Church of Hvalsey — today the best-preserved of the Norse ruins.

There is no consensus regarding the time when the Little Ice Age began, although a series of events preceding the known climatic minima has often been referenced. In the thirteenth century, pack ice began advancing southwards in the North Atlantic, as did glaciers in Greenland.   For this reason, any of several dates ranging over 400 years may indicate the beginning of the Little Ice Age:

  • 1250 for when Atlantic pack ice began to grow
  • 1275 to 1300 based on radiocarbon dating of plants killed by glaciation
  • 1300 for when warm summers stopped being dependable in Northern Europe
  • 1315 for the rains and Great Famine of 1315–1317
  • 1550 for theorized beginning of worldwide glacial expansion
  • 1650 for the first climatic minimum.


The Frozen Thames, 1677

 “The Little Ice Age” by anthropology professor Brian Fagan of the University of California at Santa Barbara tells of the plight of European peasants during the 1300 to 1850 chill: famines, hypothermia, bread riots and the rise of despotic leaders brutalising  and increasingly dispirited peasantry.

Winter skating on the main canal of Pompenburg, Rotterdam in 1825, shortly before the minimum, by Bartholomeus Johannes van Hove


The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, attributed to Henry Raeburn, 1790s

William James Burroughs analyses the depiction of winter in paintings, as does Hans Neuberger.Burroughs asserts that this occurred almost entirely from 1565 to 1665 and was associated with the climatic decline from 1550 onwards. Burroughs claims that before this, there were almost no depictions of winter in art, and “hypothesizes that the unusually harsh winter of 1565 inspired great artists to depict highly original images and that the decline in such paintings was a combination of the “theme” having been fully explored and mild winters interrupting the flow of painting”.

Wintry scenes, which have technical difficulties in painting, had been regularly and very well handled since the early fifteenth century by artists in illuminated manuscript cycles showing the Labours of the Months, typically placed on the calendar pages of books of hours.  Examples by Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry


January A New Year’s Day feast including Jean de Berry




 January and February are typically shown as snowy, as in February in the famous cycle in the Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, painted 1412-1416 and illustrated above.  At this period independent landscape subjects had not developed as a genre in art, so the absence of other winter scenes is not remarkable.

The Little Ice Age ended in the latter half of the nineteenth century or early in the twentieth century.

Neither of these proposals though where due to El Niño.

Twiggie, 2015