With the recent run of stormy weather in the UK, it is worth reflecting on just how stormy it was during the Little Ice Age, and even before.

Brian Fagan, in his book "The Little Ice Age", states that,"throughout Europe, the years 1560-1600 were cooler and stormier, with late wine harvests and considerably stronger winds than those of the 20th Century. Storm activity increased by 85% in the second half of the 16th Century and the incidence of severe storms rose by 400%.".

HH Lamb comes to similar conclusions, "there was a greater intensity, and a greater frequency, of intense storm development during the Little Ice Age", in his book "Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe".

Edward Bryant, in the book, "Natural Hazards", gives us a rundown of some of the biggest storms:-
  • Four storms along the Dutch and German coasts in the 13thC killed at least 100,000 each. The worst is estimated to have killed 300,000.
  • North Sea storms in 1099, 1421 and 1446 also killed 100,000 each in England and the Netherlands.
  • By far the worst storm was the All Saints Day flood of 1570, when 400,000 people were killed throughout Western Europe.
  • The Great Storm of 1703 sank virtually all ships in the English Channel, with the loss of 8000 to 10000 lives.
  • Other storms with similar death tolls occurred in 1634, 1671, 1682, 1686, 1694 and 1717.
  • Much of the coastline of northern Europe owes its origin to this period of storms. For instance, storms reduced the size of the island of Heligoland from 60km to 1km.
  • The Great Drowning Disaster of 1362 eroded 15km landward of the Danish coast, destroying over 60 parishes.
  • The Lucia storm of 1287 carved out the Zuider Zee.
It was not just flooding that was a problem. There were many sand storms that caused great destruction, such as the great Culbin Sands storm in 1694, which blew so much sand over the Culbin Estate in Scotland, that the farm buildings themselves disappeared. The Estate became a desert and was never reclaimed.

A similar event took place at Forvie, also in Scotland, in 1413 when the town disappeared under a 30m high sand dune.

Lamb also refers to the storms, between 1570 and 1668, which blew millions of tonnes of sand miles inland across the Brecklands of Norfolk and Suffolk, burying valuable farmland. The area has never been recovered, and is now heathland.

Lamb believes the wind strengths of these events are probably unparalleled in the 20thC. (He wrote this in 1991).
It was not just Northern Europe either. Studies suggest an increase in storms and floods in Spain.

Martin and Olcina in "Clima y Tiempos de España" note four periods of catastrophic events (mid-15th century, 1570-1610, 1769-1800 and 1820-1860) marked by heavy rains, snowfalls and sea storms. These were interspersed with interludes of droughts far more severe and persistent than those of today.

Another study looked at the Vera basin, at the eastern margin of the Betic ranges, the driest region in Europe and the Penedes basin in Central Catalonia. Specifically, during the Little Ice Age, old terraces were swept away and new terraces were deposited along nearly all river systems in both basins. particularly because of an increase in flood magnitude and frequency 'related to the southward shift of the Northern Hemisphere westerlies during the Little Ice Age'.

The Science

This is much more than just an anecdotal list.

Lamb believes that "it is likely that the increased intensity of storms in the Little Ice Age had to do with the source of potential energy in the, at that time, enhanced thermal gradient between the colder ocean surface in the seas about Iceland and the ocean south of 50-55N and the Bay of Biscay."

A paper in 2011, by Trouet, Scourse & Raible, comes to the same conclusion. They have evaluated a number of proxies, which provide evidence for enhanced storminess in NW Europe, during the LIA. For instance,

1) The onset of the LIA in NW Europe is notably marked by coastal dune development across western European coastlines linked to very strong winds during storms (Clarke and Rendell, 2009; Hansom and Hall, 2009) and often inundating local settlements and therefore with supporting archival evidence (cf. Lamb, 1995; Bailey et al., 2001).

2) A number of studies of Aeolian sand deposition records from western Denmark exist that have recorded a period of destabilization of coastal sand dunes and sand migration during the LIA and have ascribed it to a combination of increased storminess and sea-level fluctuations (Szkornik et al., 2008; Clemmensen et al., 2001; Aagaard et al.,2007)

3) Similar records and interpretations are available for the British Isles (Hansom and Hall, 2009) and Scotland (Gilbertson et al., 1999; Wilson, 2002)

4) Seasonal information on storm frequency is provided by historical naval documents. In an analysis of Royal Navy ships' log books from the English Channel and southwestern approaches covering the period between 1685 and 1750CE, Wheeler et al. (2010) note a markedly enhanced gale frequency during one of coldest episodes of the LIA in the late seventeenth century (1685 - 1700 CE) towards the end of the Maunder Minimum (MM).

During these cold years of the MM the gale index - the proportion of days with a gale - was markedly higher,with the warming of the 1730s marked by a reduction in gale activity
(Wheeler et al., 2010).

5) This late phase of the MM is also registered by the deflation of sand into the ombrotrophic peat bogs of Store mosse and Undarmosse in southwest Sweden (De Jong et al., 2006).

6) More evidence for increased storm severity during the MM is provided by an archive-based reconstruction (1570 - 1990) of storminess over the Northwest Atlantic and the North Sea (Lamb and Frydendahl, 1991), which shows a sequence of severe, predominantly winter half year (October - March) storms in the period 1690 - 1720 CE.

7) It is worth noting, however, that increased storm activity during the LIA was not restricted to northwestern Europe, but was also recorded further south along the Atlantic coast (sic) in The Netherlands (Jelgersma et al., 1995) and northern (Sorrel et al., 2009) and southwestern France (Clarke et al., 2002). These regions are located at the southern margin of North Atlantic westerly storm tracks during positive NAO phases and could thus potentially support the high winter storminess LIA scenario.

The evidence points quite clearly to storms in the Little Ice Age being much more intense. It is far too soon to start making judgements about recent events, but if it proves to be the start of a long term trend, the last thing I would be worrying about is global warming.

There is a wealth of studies, far too numerous to elaborate here, which come to similar conclusions. There is a good summary here though.