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Climate Change was Important Even at Jamestown

The Little Ice Age is what scientists call a period that lasted from about 1300 to 1750. During this time, the average worldwide temperature may have cooled by as much as 0.1 degrees Celsius. While its name may suggest otherwise, this period "was far from a deep freeze," the scholar Brian Fagan has written. "Think instead of an irregular seesaw of rapid climatic shifts, driven by complex and still little understood interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean."

In other words, people who lived during the Little Ice Age experienced extreme weather of all kinds: cold winters, hot summers, droughts, and floods. And this weather had a critical effect on historical events such as the Roanoke colony's disappearance and the English settlement at Jamestown.

Scientists disagree about what caused the Little Ice Age. The sun produced fewer sunspots during this period, slightly changing the tilt of the Earth's axis. This may have contributed to climatic changes, as, perhaps, did a few unusually large volcanic eruptions. Or, according to the scientist Warren F. Ruddiman, European settlement of the New World may have been a factor. Natives who once had burned the forests for farmland largely died of disease. The carbon dioxide from those burns may have warmed temperatures; without the burns, temperatures cooled.

Whatever the causes, the effects of the Little Ice Age were pronounced. When English settlers landed at Roanoke in 1585, they encountered the worst drought there in 800 years. One of those settlers, Thomas Hariot, himself a scientist, noticed how the Indians' corn had withered under an extraordinary drought. As the Indians died of disease and famine, violence erupted. The Indians considered attacking the English, who were eating some of their food stores. Instead, the English attacked them first. The Lost Colony, which disappeared the next year, may have met its fate due to the resulting distrust between Indians and Englishmen.

Much the same happened at Jamestown. When the English settlers landed in 1607, the country was at the beginning of a seven-year drought. It was the driest period in 770 years and people were hungry. It was also cold. Writing to a friend in 1608, Francis Perkins described a cold "so intense that one night the river at our fort froze almost all the way across, although at that point it was wide again as the one at London. The ice in the river froze some fish which, when we took them out after the ice was melted, were very good."

In fact, the Thames River froze over that year, leading to so-called Frost Fairs, or festivals held on the river. The year before, the Thames had flooded, killing as many as 3,000 people and prompting one writer to suggest that such a calamity could only have been a warning from God. Back in America, Englishmen quickly began to die of disease and while the Indians helped feed them at first, soon they, too, ran low of food. War resulted, and both sides attempted to starve the other.

In the end, the English survived—in spite of the weather.


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