Historical climatology


Historical climatology

Historical climatology is the study of historical changes in climate and their effect on human history and development. This differs from paleoclimatology which encompasses climate change over the entire history of the earth. The study seeks to define periods in human history where temperature or precipitation varied from what is observed in the present day.

Techniques of historical climatology

In literate societies, historians may find written evidence of climatic variations over hundreds or thousands of years, such as phenological records of natural processes, for example viticultural records of grape harvest dates. In preliterate or non-literate societies, researchers must rely on other techniques to find evidence of historical climate differences.

Past population levels and habitable ranges of humans or plants and animals may be used to find evidence of past differences in climate for the region. Palynology, the study of pollens, can show not only the range of plants and to reconstruct possible ecology, but to estimate the amount of precipitation in a given time period, based on the abundance of pollen in that layer of sediment or ice.

Evidence of climatic variations

The eruption of the Toba supervolcano, 70,000 to 75,000 years ago reduced the average global temperature by 5 degrees Celsius for several years and may have triggered an ice age. It has been postulated that this created a bottleneck in human evolution. A much smaller but similar effect occurred after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, when global temperatures fell for about 5 years in a row.

Before the retreat of glaciers at the start of the Holocene (~9600 BC), ice sheets covered much of the northern latitudes and sea levels were much lower than they are today. The start of our present interglacial period appears to have helped spur the development of human civilization.

Human record

Evidence of a warm climate in Europe, for example, comes from archaeological studies of settlement and farming in the Early Bronze Age at altitudes now beyond cultivation, such as Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Lake district and the Pennines in England. The climate appears to have deteriorated towards the Late Bronze Age however. Settlements and field boundaries have been found at high altitude in these areas, which are now wild and uninhabitable.

Some parts of the present Saharan desert may have been populated when the climate was cooler and wetter, judging by cave art and other signs of settlement in Prehistoric Central North Africa.

Archaeological evidence supports studies of the Norse sagas describe the settlement of Greenland in the 9th century AD of land now quite unsuitable for cultivation. For example, excavations at one settlement site have shown the presence of birch trees during the early Viking period. The same period records the discovery of an area called Vinland, probably in North America, which may also have been warmer than at present, judging by the alleged presence of grape vines. The interlude is known as the Medieval Warm Period. Later examples include the Little Ice Age, well documented by paintings, documents (such as diaries) and events such as the River Thames frost fairs held on frozen lakes and rivers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The River Thames was made more narrow and flowed faster after old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, and the river was embanked in stages during the 19th century, both of which made the river less liable to freezing.

Evidence of anthropogenic climate change

Through deforestation and agriculture, some scientists have proposed a human component in some historical climatic changes. Human-started fires have been implicated in the transformation of much of Australia from grassland to desert. [ [http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/309/5732/287 Ecosystem Collapse in Pleistocene Australia and a Human Role in Megafaunal Extinction - Miller et al. 309 (5732): 287 - Science ] ] If true, this would show that even a primitive society could have a role in influencing regional climate. Deforestation, desertification and the salinization of soils may have contributed to or caused other climatic changes throughout human history.

For a discussion of recent human involvement in climatic changes, see Attribution of recent climate change.

See also

* Climate
* Paleoclimatology, the pre-historical study of Earth's climate
* Global warming
* CLIWOC, Climatological database for the world's oceans (1750-1854)

References

External links

* [http://cdiac.ornl.gov/epubs/ndp/ushcn/newushcn.html US Historical Climatology Network]


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