Sunday, December 22, 2019

"Little Ice Age lessons"

Speaking of the Rijksmuseum...
From Aeon:

The world’s last climate crisis demonstrates that surviving is possible if bold economic and social change is embraced
Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters (c1608), by Hendrick Avercamp. Avercamp was deaf and mute and
 specialised in painting scenes of the Netherlands in winter. Courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Midway through the 17th century, Dutch whalers bound for the Arctic noticed that the climate was changing. For decades, they had waited for the retreat of sea ice in late spring, then pursued bowhead whales in bays off the Arctic Ocean islands of Jan Mayen and Spitsbergen. They had set up whaling stations and even towns in those bays, with ovens to boil blubber into oil. Europe’s growing population demanded oil for lighting and cooking, and for industrial purposes that included the manufacture of soap. Now, thick sea ice kept whalers from reaching their ovens even in mid-summer. Climate change, it seemed, had doomed their trade.

Yet in the frigid decades of the late-17th century, the Dutch whaling industry boomed. Whalers discovered how to boil blubber aboard their ships or on sea ice, then learned how to transport it from the Arctic to furnaces in Amsterdam. There, labourers boiled the oil until it reached a purity never achieved in the Arctic, giving Dutch whalers a competitive edge in the European market. Shipwrights greased and reinforced the hulls of whaling vessels so that they could slide off thick ice and survive the occasional collision. The governing council of the Dutch Republic – the country that would become the Netherlands of today – allowed a corporate monopoly on whaling to expire, and thereby encouraged competition between hundreds of new whalers. Ironically, by provoking crisis, climate change spurred a golden age for the Dutch whaling industry.

Many of us think of today’s extraordinarily rapid, human-caused climate change as an existential threat to humanity, one that will inevitably wipe away cities, industries, countries, perhaps even our species – or at least our way of life. Many historians, archaeologists and natural scientists have thought about the modest, natural climate changes that preceded the 20th century in much the same way: as existential threats to past civilisations. In their accounts, communities and societies wedded to old ways of life had little recourse when previously predictable weather patterns abruptly changed.

Time and again, they argue, past climate changes provoked civilisational ‘collapse’: a sudden unravelling of social and economic complexity, culminating in a catastrophic decline in population. In popular books and articles, journalists and scientists draw on these ideas to argue that because natural climate changes destroyed past civilisations, anthropogenic warming could well doom ours.
Yet new research is telling us something very different. It is revealing that many – perhaps most – communities successfully endured past climate changes. Some bounced back quickly after severe and previously unusual weather; others avoided disaster entirely. Many adapted to become more resilient to damage, or to exploit new opportunities. Climate change in fact repeatedly altered environments so they better suited how some societies grew food, made money, or waged war.

Even in resilient societies, thousands died amid the most extreme weather unleashed by past climate changes. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that our ancestors often acted decisively and creatively to make the best out of trying times. Far from an outlier, the story of Dutch whalers in the Arctic is merely one example in a history of ingenuity in the face of past climate change.

f you follow the weather, you will no doubt have heard that a day, month or year is the hottest on record. It might be tempting to assume that this record involves all of natural or at least human history, but it really refers only to the almost century-and-a-half in which weather stations equipped with accurate thermometers gradually spread across the world. For much of that period, human greenhouse gas emissions have been the driving force behind changes in Earth’s average annual temperature.

To determine just how unusual these global changes are, how they might transform local environments, and how they are linked to the changing chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere, researchers have searched far and wide for evidence of earlier climatic variability. By measuring the thickness of rings embedded in the trunks of trees, for example, they have traced how the growth rates of trees scattered around the Earth accelerated or slowed in past centuries. They have compared these fluctuating growth rates to recent, reliable records of temperature and precipitation, and thereby developed an understanding of how different trees respond to climatic trends. With that knowledge, they have used growth rings in living trees, fossilised wood and even timber embedded in ancient buildings to reconstruct changes in Earth’s climate from antiquity to the present....

And finally a word to art collectors, one last lesson: winter scenes, even by prominent artists, do not command the kinds of prices that summer scenes do. 
As the great Bill Watterson put it: