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Thread: 1709: The year that Europe froze.

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    Default 1709: The year that Europe froze.

    1709: The year that Europe froze




    People across Europe awoke on 6 January 1709 to find the temperature had plummeted. A three-week freeze was followed by a brief thaw - and then the mercury plunged again and stayed there. From Scandinavia in the north to Italy in the south, and from Czechoslovakia in the east to the west coast of France, everything turned to ice. The sea froze. Lakes and rivers froze, and the soil froze to a depth of a metre or more. Livestock died from cold in their barns, chicken's combs froze and fell off, trees exploded and travellers froze to death on the roads. It was the coldest winter in 500 years.


    IN ENGLAND they called the winter of 1709 the Great Frost. In France it entered legend as Le Grand Hiver, three months of deadly cold that ushered in a year of famine and food riots. In Scandinavia the Baltic froze so thoroughly that people could walk across the ice as late as April. In Switzerland hungry wolves crept into villages. Venetians skidded across their frozen lagoon, while off Italy's west coast, sailors aboard English men-of-war died from the cold. "I believe the Frost was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within the Memory of Man," wrote William Derham, one of England's most meticulous meteorological observers. He was right. Three hundred years on, it holds the record as the coldest European winter of the past half-millennium.

    Derham was the Rector of Upminster, a short ride north-east of London. He had been checking his thermometer and barometer three times a day since 1697. Similarly dedicated observers scattered across Europe did much the same and their records tally remarkably closely. On the night of 5 January, the temperature fell dramatically and kept on falling. On 10 January, Derham logged -12 C, the lowest temperature he had ever measured. In France, the temperature dipped lower still. In Paris, it sank to -15 C on 14 January and stayed there for 11 days. After a brief thaw at the end of that month the cold returned with a vengeance and stayed until mid-March.

    Later that year, Derham wrote a detailed account of the freeze and the destruction it caused for the Royal Society's Transactions. Fish froze in the rivers, game lay down in the fields and died, and small birds perished by the million. The loss of tender herbs and exotic fruit trees was no surprise, but even hardy native oaks and ash trees succumbed. The loss of the wheat crop was "a general calamity". England's troubles were trifling, however, compared to the suffering across the English Channel.

    In France, the freeze gripped the whole country as far as the Mediterranean. Even the king and his courtiers at the sumptuous Palace of Versailles struggled to keep warm. The Duchess of Orleans wrote to her aunt in Germany: "I am sitting by a roaring fire, have a screen before the door, which is closed, so that I can sit here with a sable fur piece around my neck and my feet in a bearskin sack and I am still shivering with cold and can barely hold the pen. Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one."

    In more humble homes, people went to bed and woke to find their nightcaps frozen to the bed-head. Bread froze so hard it took an axe to cut it. According to a canon from Beaune in Burgundy, "travellers died in the countryside, livestock in the stables, wild animals in the woods; nearly all the birds died, wine froze in barrels and public fires were lit to warm the poor". From all over the country came reports of people found frozen to death. And with roads and rivers blocked by snow and ice, it was impossible to transport food to the cities. Paris waited three months for fresh supplies.



    There was worse to come. Everywhere, fruit, nut and olive trees died. The winter wheat crop was destroyed. When spring finally arrived, the cold was replaced by worsening food shortages. In Paris, many survived only because the authorities, fearing an uprising, forced the rich to provide soup kitchens. With no grain to make bread, some country people made "flour" by grinding ferns, bulking out their loaves with nettles and thistles. By the summer, there were reports of starving people in the fields "eating grass like sheep". Before the year was out more than a million had died from cold or starvation.
    The fact that so many people left accounts of the freeze suggests the winter of 1708/1709 was unusually bad, but just how extraordinary was it?

    In 2004, Jrg Luterbacher, a climatologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, produced a month-by-month reconstruction of Europe's climate since 1500, using a combination of direct measurements, proxy indicators of temperature such as tree rings and ice cores, and data gleaned from historical documents (Science, vol 303, p 1499). The winter of 1708-1709 was the coldest. Across large parts of Europe the temperature was as much as 7 C below the average for 20th-century Europe.

    Why it was quite so cold is harder to explain. The Little Ice Age was at its climax and Europe was experiencing climatically turbulent times: the 1690s saw a string of cold summers and failed harvests, while the summer of 1707 was so hot people died from heat exhaustion. Overall, the climate was colder, with the sun's output at its lowest for millennia. There were some spectacular volcanic eruptions in 1707 and 1708, including Mount Fuji in Japan and Santorini and Vesuvius in Europe. These would have sent dust high into the atmosphere, forming a veil over Europe. Such dust veils normally lead to cooler summers and sometimes warmer winters, but climatologists think that during this persistent cold phase, dust may have depressed both summer and winter temperatures.

    None of these things accounts for the extremity of that particular winter, however. "Something unusual seems to have been happening," says Dennis Wheeler, a climatologist at the University of Sunderland, UK. As part of the European Union's Millennium Project, which aims to reconstruct the past 1000 years of Europe's climate, Wheeler is extracting data from Royal Navy logbooks, which provide daily observations of wind and weather. "With daily data you can produce very reliable monthly averages but you can also see what happened from one day to the next," says Wheeler. He and his colleagues have now compiled a database of daily observations stretching back to 1685 from the English Channel area. "This is a key climatic zone. The weather there reflects wider conditions across the Atlantic, which is where in normal circumstances much European weather originates."

    The most immediate cause of cold winters in Europe is usually an icy wind from Siberia. "What you would expect would be long runs of easterly winds with a well-developed anticyclone over Scandinavia sucking in cold air from Siberia," says Wheeler. Instead, his data show a predominance of southerly and westerly winds - which would normally bring warm air to Europe. "There were only occasional northerlies and easterlies and those were never for more than a few days," says Wheeler. Another odd finding was that January was unusually stormy. Winter storms tend to bring milder, if wilder, weather to Europe. "This combination of cold, storms and westerlies suggests some other mechanism was responsible for that winter."

    There may be no easy explanation for the Great Frost of 1709, but unexpected weather patterns revealed by Wheeler's data underline why climate reconstructions are so important. "We need to explain the natural variation in climate over past centuries so that we can tease apart all those factors that contribute to climate change. But before we can do that we need to nail down those changes in detail," says Wheeler. "Climate doesn't behave consistently and warmer and colder, drier and wetter periods can't always be explained by the same mechanisms." In the two decades after that terrible winter, the climate warmed very rapidly. "Some people point to that and say today's warming is nothing new. But they are not comparable. The factors causing warming then were quite different from those operating now."
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    On the night of 5 January, the temperature fell dramatically and kept on falling. On 10 January, Derham logged -12 C, the lowest temperature he had ever measured. In France, the temperature dipped lower still. In Paris, it sank to -15 C on 14 January and stayed there for 11 days. After a brief thaw at the end of that month the cold returned with a vengeance and stayed until mid-March.
    I don't see anything wrong with such temperatures. -20/25 C is still ok to work on open air.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hors View Post
    I don't see anything wrong with such temperatures. -20/25 C is still ok to work on open air.
    For Russians maybe. Besides, if the temperature had been so low in Western Europe, I can only imagine it to have been far worse in Russia at that time.

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    1709, the year the Swedish army was annihilated at Poltava, is not known for any temperatures extremes in Russia.

    Personally, I don't like cold, but -15 C is nothing... business as usual. Actually it could be rather pleasing.

    Winters became siginificantly shorter and warmer in Moscow nowdays, but I remember how I enjoyed such temperatures, usually associated with clear sky and sun when I was a boy. That's the real Russian winter.

    Only when it's below -30 C they close junior schools and take some precautions.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hors View Post
    I don't see anything wrong with such temperatures. -20/25 C is still ok to work on open air.
    Indeed, when I first saw the topic name I would have expected it to be much colder than -15. Temperatures as low as -30 are not exactly uncommon in winter over here and people don't just stop going to work because of it (whether back in the day or today). Just dress in layers. My family used to keep cows and they wouldn't exactly drop like flies at temperatures like -15, not to mention the prairies get even colder. Places like Labrador and northern Alberta will drop to -50 with wind chill at times, plus how else do you expect transport trucks to make it across from northern Newfoundland to Labrador in the winter.

    I honestly didn't think winters were that warm in Europe, especially Scandinavia, but if -15 is horribly unusual it looks like I will be missing winter dearly the next two years.

    There may be no easy explanation for the Great Frost of 1709, but unexpected weather patterns revealed by Wheeler's data underline why climate reconstructions are so important. "We need to explain the natural variation in climate over past centuries so that we can tease apart all those factors that contribute to climate change. But before we can do that we need to nail down those changes in detail," says Wheeler. "Climate doesn't behave consistently and warmer and colder, drier and wetter periods can't always be explained by the same mechanisms." In the two decades after that terrible winter, the climate warmed very rapidly. "Some people point to that and say today's warming is nothing new. But they are not comparable. The factors causing warming then were quite different from those operating now."
    Interesting.

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    I've experienced -45C in Montreal in early 2004. Spent one hour in the queue for getting in the club. It sucked !
    It's never too early to start beefing up your obituary.

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    I think the point which is being missed here, is the era in which this occurred,
    1709, the Europeans didn't have central heating and insulated houses capable of protecting against the cold like we do now.
    The temperature may be -15, but the wind chill could far exceed that. (I couldn't find anything about that, but it can't be left out of the whole scenario).
    The seeds for crops which were paramount for survival, were not the arduous types we have today which can withstand the extreme cold or warmth, wetness or dryness.

    No food is no nutrition, which in turn would lead to a lowered immunity system which led to many deaths alone, apart from the mass violent outbreaks over food shortages.
    Last edited by Beorn; 02-07-2009 at 05:23 PM. Reason: .

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    Yes the problem is that we were not kitted out for it, our wildlife can not survive it and neither can we. Even now we have problems if the temperature drops below 0 for too long,
    My Finnish friends are constantly cold here, as we do not heat out houses as warm as they do back at home.
    Cattle die, kinsmen die,
    the self must also die;
    but glory never dies,
    For the one who is able to achieve it.

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    You can't compare Western clothing, buildings and nutrition with Eastern one, even though the Eastern areas suffered hard as well. Modern clothing and living is not comparable, fur coats and fell boots and the like were also not as common in Western as in Eastern Europe, even the Vikings in Greenland and Iceland had a not as adequate clothing as Eastern Europeans in the crucial times.

    The "Little Ice Age" with the suboptimal temperatures from the high Middle Ages on to modernity led to mass starvations, more diseases and plagues, very poor living conditions in all formerly temperate climate areas of Europe, the extinction of the Vikings in Greenland and their decimation in Iceland and supported the Alpinisation and Baltisation process in all areas which were further away from coastal and river areas in particular, from which fish, seafood and trade could have supported the suffering populations.

    One can say that the average peasant in medieval to early modern times in Europe lived much worse than a Corded Ware individual and still significantly worse than a LBK farmer.

    The effects of climate cannot be overestimated and they also show how instable it always was...
    Last edited by Agrippa; 02-07-2009 at 07:08 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by BeornWulfWer View Post
    I think the point which is being missed here, is the era in which this occurred,
    1709, the Europeans didn't have central heating and insulated houses capable of protecting against the cold like we do now.
    The temperature may be -15, but the wind chill could far exceed that. (I couldn't find anything about that, but it can't be left out of the whole scenario).
    The seeds for crops which were paramount for survival, were not the arduous types we have today which can withstand the extreme cold or warmth, wetness or dryness.

    No food is no nutrition, which in turn would lead to a lowered immunity system which led to many deaths alone, apart from the mass violent outbreaks over food shortages.
    I think this was the problem:

    In France, the freeze gripped the whole country as far as the Mediterranean. Even the king and his courtiers at the sumptuous Palace of Versailles struggled to keep warm. The Duchess of Orleans wrote to her aunt in Germany: "I am sitting by a roaring fire, have a screen before the door, which is closed, so that I can sit here with a sable fur piece around my neck and my feet in a bearskin sack and I am still shivering with cold and can barely hold the pen. Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one."
    The issue seems to do with not being prepared for a winter that dropped that low in Europe rather than the fact that it did so. Over here the temperature has been as such from the time Europeans settled here and before and people adjusted to it, so I think, again, the problem was being prepared rather than the temperature itself. One instance I can think of that happened recently here is the ice storm back in '98. A good chunk of eastern Canada was struck by it, power lines were down everywhere, most in the area were without electricity. The ones who did best in that situation where actually the ones without central heating and so on. Most people in our area all have wood stoves (which is better than central heating in a regular sized house, I find) and it was us who had to drive generators to family members in Montral who were without power. People in cities or towns who depended on groceries and such were the ones who mainly needed food delivered to them by the army. Yes, there were those who froze to death, and there were many critically injured during those few days, but as usual it was those who were unprepared who were hit the hardest. Thing is, a storm like that hit harder and caused more damage than any -30 and below temperatures that are typical of the region.

    Now, yes I realise we're talking about different time periods, but I think a comparison can be made, and that the reason the temperature drop in western Europe caused so many deaths was similar to that of the ice storm. The biggest issue seems to have been starvation and famine, which are an entirely different issue, and weren't exactly uncommon. It seems very unlikely that livestock and wild animals would drop dead in such large numbers because of -15 degree temperatures alone. The biggest issue with livestock, I'd imagine anyways, would have been feeding them, not keeping them from freezing en masse. Deer, moose, wolves and so on are also accustomed to such temperatures.

    I can't help but think that some of the accounts are slightly exaggerated when they talk about fish freezing and birds dying by the millions, it seems apocalyptic. For example, ice fishing is pretty common in many northern climates even in temperatures as low as -30. The panic at the time is understandable, but my suggestion is that the large scale instances of hypothermia were possibly due to the unexpected nature of the temperature drop and, perhaps, due to the social and economic structure and population density of western Europe at the time. When a culture is so dependent on agriculture, famines will take a larger toll, but with a population the size of western Europe's at that time, altering society's dependency on agriculture would have been near impossible, especially in that time frame. I can't help but think that it wasn't the temperature drop itself, but some other weather factor.

    @Agrippa,

    One can say that the average peasant in medieval to early modern times in Europe lived much worse than a Corded Ware individual and still significantly worse than a LBK farmer.
    Yes, this was exactly it.

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