The Week That Was
September 23, 2000


One of our readers wonders where they are going to find the fuel for the vaunted hydrogen economy. The answer is obvious: We can get it by pipeline from Jupiter.

The Week That Was September 23, 2000 brought to you by SEPP


John Dillin Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor (8/24/00)

It was AD 986. Erik the Red, ousted from Iceland for manslaughter, set sail with a hardy group of Vikings for a faraway land. Erik called it Greenland, a place ordinarily hostile to humans with its mile-thick ice cap. Erik's improbable mission succeeded. The Norsemen established two communities on the southwest coast of Greenland, where they raised livestock on 280 farms. Later, they even sent expeditions west to explore Vinland (Newfoundland). They made history.

What Erik could not have known was that his adventure, like other Viking exploration a thousand years ago, was greatly aided by a long-term change in the weather. For about 400 years, much of the earth's climate inexplicably warmed up - a time now known as the Medieval Warm Period. Temperatures may have averaged 2 to 3 degrees C higher than today.

The Medieval Warm Period was just one phase of this millennium's highly variable weather. First, it was wonderfully warm. Then, it got terribly cold. And today, it seems to be warming again. This changing pattern played a pivotal role in the history of this millennium. As it warmed in the early years, the weather helped farmers raise more bountiful crops and encouraged mothers to have more children. Explorers like the Vikings sought out new lands, and prosperity encouraged the building of cathedrals. Mountain glaciers receded in Europe.

Sea ice off the coast of Iceland nearly vanished for three centuries. The effects seem to have spread to North America, where in AD 900 Eskimos settled Ellesmere Island at the usually frigid northwest corner of Greenland. In Alaska, a warming trend was detected. And in the Rocky Mountains, the new warmth pushed the snow line about 1,000 feet higher than where it stands today.

Then a chill set in. Slowly at first. People didn't want to believe it. Farmers were reluctant to give up their new fields. Settlers on Greenland held on for as long as possible. But the steadily expanding cold was irresistible by the 1200s. Unspeakable hardships began to take hold in much of the world. In Iceland, extensive grasslands that had supported sheep, goats, and cattle from AD 874 had receded by 1200. Farming became so difficult that Icelanders turned to fishing and the hunting of seals to support themselves. The population fell sharply.

By the late 1500s, temperatures continued to plunge, and the Little Ice Age firmly gripped much of the world.

Life changed for millions of people. In Europe, there was immense suffering. Crops failed. The poor grew poorer. Infanticide and abortion increased as families ran out of food. Several Eskimos, driven south by ice, paddled as far as Scotland. The Thames River at London froze frequently in the 1600s. "Frost fairs" atop the Thames became common in the 1700s, and in 1820 it was so cold that river ice was reported as five feet thick.

By 1700, Iceland was surrounded with sea ice that made commerce with the rest of the world hazardous. And in faraway China, citrus groves that had survived for centuries froze in Jiangxi province. The Little Ice Age lasted anywhere from 400 to 700 years. Exact dates are uncertain. There were no thermometers during much of this period. Some suggest it didn't end until around 1900.

The URL for this page is:


By Robert Roy Britt, . 07.12.99

About nine millennia back, the Earth wobbled, tilting a little on its axis and shifting its orbit around the Sun ever so slightly. In a historic cosmic sense, what with entire galaxies colliding, stars exploding and planets getting pummeled by huge rocks, the event was a sneeze. But to some ancient humans who lived in a relatively lush place -- a place that is now the Sahara desert -- the Earth's little jig appears to have been a traumatic event.

In fact, researchers believe, it could be the reason the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers became so popular, since the ancients found their water supply and all the greenery around them disappear over a course of a few centuries.

Though the idea of a mass migration is hypothetical, it's an intriguing possible consequence of a rather subtle change in the tenuous stability of our home planet, a notion that one researcher says is food for thought regarding our own future (or at least for that of our descendants).


Vice-President Albert Gore, self-proclaimed Pulitzer Prize winner Ross Gelbspan and others claim fossil fuels create greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere and cause weather extremes and severe storms. Let's look at the record for Detroit, and see if the evidence supports this theory.

'16. Ice formed every month of the year. But just six years later, the weather was so mild that flowers bloomed in mid-winter and a ship was able to cross Lake Erie in mid January. And then in May of the following year, there was a foot of snow on the ground.

'26. Unseasonably warm weather caused grass to grow a foot high in January.

'45. Small ships were able to cross Lake Erie and reach Detroit every month of the entire winter.

'56. The Detroit area experienced frosts every month, including heavy ones on July 3 and 4 that ruined fruit and vegetable crops.

'68-70. Turbulent weather continued to whipsaw Detroit. The area experienced six snowstorms during April of '68, the last one on the 25th. Heavy snowstorms hit the area a year later on April 13, and again on October 23 - with frosts in between, on August 17, 18 and 19. The ensuing winter was so bitter that piled-up ice in the St. Claire Flats was still 10 feet high on April 26 of '70. Little rain fell all summer in '69, kicking off a severe 3-year drought that led to horrible forest fires in September and October three years later.

'73-75. On January 29 of '73, the temperature ranged from 18 below to 35 below zero Fahrenheit. In '74, ice formed on May 7 - but the next month the temperature hit 98 degrees. And in '75, after another bitterly cold winter, a tornado roared through Detroit on June 27, killing two persons.

'76-77. Ice in the Detroit River was already a foot thick in December. Mid-month gales piled up river ice and snow into a scene reminiscent of Antarctica. A month later, in mid-January, a snowstorm paralyzed the city. But early February produced extraordinary warmth. Then on March 20th, Detroit was hit by heavy snowfall accompanied by lightning that set off the City Hall bell.

'77-78. The temperatures a year later were incredibly warm - the first ice didn't form on the river until February 9, and the winter's first snow fell on February 11. But the summer of '78 was torrid. For a week in July the temperatures ranged up to 100 degrees.

'78-79. All through January and February, the temperature stayed above freezing. But a frost occurred on June 17. On August 1, a thunderstorm produced walnut-sized hail.
Proof positive that global warming causes violent weather extremes? Before you conclude that Messrs. Gore and Gelbspan must be right, note that all these events occurred in the
Nineteenth Century: in 1816 - 1879!

[Based on June 20, 1998 Detroit News article by freelance writer Daniel Hager. The above weather data were collected from "History of Detroit and Wayne County and Early Michigan" by Silas Farmer, published in 1890. ]



Go to the Week That Was Index