The climate change debate, nineteenth-century style

abenaki-westernFrom “An Account of Quebec,” The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions, and Politics(London: Rudolph Ackermann, September 1809), 149-150.

Although Quebec is situated so far south as 46º 47′, two degrees to the southward of Paris, yet the climate approximates to that of St. Petersburg, in 60º north.  It is upon record, that in a severe winter, many years ago, the mercury in Fahrenheit’s thermometer sunk to 39º below zero, where it froze.  At the same time, a bomb-shell, filled with water and closely stopped, exploded as if charged with gunpowder.  It is a disputed point, whether the climate has, or has not, gained a permanent degree of amelioration. The former is the public sentiment. One the first settlement of the English in the country [ca. 1759], it was an established custom, that no vessel should depart from the river after the first week in November: at present, however, they venture to take their departure so late as Christmas.

The first fall of snow generally occurs about the middle of October. This is followed by a thaw, and three weeks or a month of fine warm weather, which is called the Indian summer. There is then a heavy fall of snow, and the frost sets in hard about Christmas. From that time to the middle of March, the winter is unrelenting.  From an average of ten years, the range of Fahrenheit’s thermometer, during the months of January, February, and March, was found to be from 12º to 28º.

Acadian militiamanBecause this commentary was published in 1809, it’s unlikely that the anthropocene is responsible for this reported climate change; it was the end of the Little Ice Age that probably accounts for increasingly mild winters in Quebec by the end of the eighteenth century.  Too bad climate change didn’t happen fast enough to help Benedict Arnold, who besieged the city in 1775 too late in the year to secure a victory.  He really could have used a warmer winter!  On December 31 he attempted to take the city, but snow and ice pelted his troops, who were already severely weakened and diminished in numbers by an outbreak of smallpox in the camp.  He and his men managed to hang on into the spring, when they were finally driven away from the city in May of 1776.

Anyhoo:  The moral of this story for historians is that if you’re paying attention to your primary sources, you too can collect information about climate change!  I’m just quoting some of the narrative treasures inside this lifestyle magazine of the Regency era, which ran for nearly twenty years from 1809 through 1828.  What’s more:  each issue publishes the daily weather recorded two months earlier in Manchester!  Modern environmental historians take note–this kind of stuff is everywhere if you look for it.

6 thoughts on “The climate change debate, nineteenth-century style

  1. It’s not just the people who suffer! “Imaginez-vous seulement quel ennuy doivent donner les neges de Canada, de quatre & cinq mois de durée, sous un climat un peu plus meridional que n’est celuy de Paris d’où je vous escris. Pensés, je vous supplie, ce que se doit estre des lieux ou les testicules des chevaux tombent de froid […]” (La Mothe Le Vayer, Petits traitez, 1648)


  2. Thanks for the tip, Truffula! I do a small segment on the Little Ice Age and environmental history in my fall introductory course.


  3. Ah, but why did the Little Ice Age happen? Steven Stoll marshals the evidence in a wonderful article in Harper’s (2009) to provide a compelling answer: it was humans, or rather, the tremendous decline in human population during the pandemics of the mid-14th century (~25% of the earth’s population, as of 1500, was lost between 1200 and 1750), which allowed the regrowth of forests and planetary cooling. This cooling was then reversed by human agriculture and population regrowth, which together destroyed 537 million hectares of forest between 1700 and 1920.

    Speaking of climate history, the LRB reviewed “Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World” (by Gillen Wood) back in February. Tambora erupted in 1815, with catastrophic effects around the globe: e.g., “Between 1807 and 1815… the average daily temperature in London was 50°F. In 1816 it was 38°F….” This caused agricultural collapse, food riots, mass famine, epidemics, etc.

    Fascinating stuff!


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