Atlantic History Climate
by
Anya Zilberstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0224

Introduction

In a geophysical sense, there has never been a single climate of the entire Atlantic world. The ocean’s hemispheres and littoral encompass humid rain forest and desert landscapes; highland and lowland zones; and temperate, polar, and tropical conditions. At the borderlands of these regions, particularly across eastern North America and the tropical Caribbean, the complex interaction of different weather systems has resulted in powerful hurricanes, tornadoes, and storms. But since geological and meteorological processes on a much larger scale or originating elsewhere (such as glacial ages or the Pacific-borne El Niño/La Niña cycles) also influence regional climates, none of these can be considered as strictly Atlantic phenomena. If there is no one “Atlantic climate,” it is, nevertheless, reasonable to think of the beginnings of Atlantic history as climatic. Climate has shaped and been shaped by the history of the Atlantic world (see also Susan S. Parrish’s Oxford Bibliographies article on Environment and the Natural World). Climate change encouraged the earliest Atlantic crossings: animal migrations across the North Atlantic at the end of the last Ice Age and Scandinavian colonists in Greenland and northern Canada in the late 10th century during the Medieval Warm Period. The onset of more severe weather reversed this process, but only temporarily. During the Little Ice Age from the 14th to the mid-19th centuries, the persistence of icier northern waters, longer, colder winters, and shorter summers challenged, but did not prevent, the European exploration, conquest, and settlement of the Americas. Instead, New World colonization reshaped longstanding models of the global distribution of climates along lines of latitude as well as perceptions about the causal relationships between climates and human societies. Thus, climate history and debates about it were crucially part of a range of early modern imperial and intellectual efforts that, in effect, created a more unified Atlantic world. Moreover, climatic and atmospheric changes are increasingly a cause and consequence of the Atlantic world’s continuing ecological decline. The absorption of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, in the ocean and air above it is a long-term result of the industrial revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic, which, in turn, has led to potentially irreversible changes: rising water temperature and sea levels and shifts in large-scale weather and wind patterns. The material and cultural history of climate thus provides a set of comparative contexts and conceptual frameworks for grappling with the overwhelming scope of the contemporary crisis.

General Overviews

Climate history is a relatively new area of research that first emerged out of interdisciplinary collaborations between scientists and economic and social historians (Wigley, et al. 1981); more recently, cultural and environmental historians and historians of science have expanded the scope of inquiry within the field (Fleming and Janković 2011, Richards 2003). Much of the earliest work on climate history was begun in European universities, particularly in France and Britain. The glaciologist Jean M. Grove (Grove 1988, cited under the Little Ice Age) at the University of Cambridge; Hubert H. Lamb (Lamb 1982), the founder and director of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit; and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (Ladurie 1988), a leading annaliste, were particularly influential for social and economic historians (Rotberg and Rabb 1981). This literature focused primarily on establishing a chronology of relatively warmer and colder periods over the past millennium, inspiring revisionist interpretations of major events in world history, particularly the history of religious controversies or political and social upheavals in the West (Behringer 2010). In addition, intensifying public concern about the natural environment, in general, and global warming, in particular, has impelled investigations of early modern understandings of climate and weather and responses to climate change (Fleming 1998, Fleming and Janković 2011).

  • Behringer, Wolfgang. A Cultural History of Climate. Translated by Patrick Camiller. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Recapitulates the classic research of Grove 1988 (cited under the Little Ice Age), Ladurie 1988, and Lamb 1982 in a survey of climate history from the Neolithic revolution to the present. Despite the title, this work is strongest in examining the relationship between the Little Ice Age and early modern European social history, particularly witch hunts. Contains copious graphs and charts. Originally published in German: Kulturgeschichte des Klimas (Bonn, Germany: bpb, 2007).

  • Fleming, James R. Historical Perspectives on Climate Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    One of the earliest and still standard works that situates climate science in transatlantic intellectual developments from Enlightenment debates about climate change in colonial British America to the discovery of global warming. The brief chapters of the book trace the history of “elite and popular understandings” of climate through a focus on key individuals, including the well known (Montesquieu), the obscure (Samuel Williams), and the notorious (Ellsworth Huntington).

  • Fleming, James R., and Vladimir Janković. “Revisiting Klima.” Osiris 26.1 (2011): 1–15.

    E-mail Citation »

    The History of Science Society’s 2011 annual special issue was devoted to the history of climate and climate science, including articles by Carey 2011 (cited under Health, Disease, and the Body), Cushman 2011, and Vogel 2011 (both cited under Intellectual History), which explore a variety of Atlantic contexts—the Caribbean, South America, and Ireland—from the 17th through the early 20th centuries.

  • Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate since the Year 1000. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

    E-mail Citation »

    The inventive and influential historian of rural France examines the relationship between climatic variability and the incidence of poor harvests, food scarcity, and famines since the last millennium. Perhaps most importantly, Ladurie cautions against both anthropocentrism and a naive faith in scientific evidence or explanations. Originally published in 1971.

  • Lamb, Hubert H. Climate, History, and the Modern World. New York: Methuen, 1982.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203433652E-mail Citation »

    An attempt by a pioneer in the field to cover the subject from the retreat of the glaciers to the late 20th century. Chapters consider the physical nature of climate, major climatic events in world history (including one of the earliest descriptions of the Little Ice Age), anthropogenic change, the science of forecasting, methodological issues, and suggestions for coping with climate change.

  • Richards, John F. The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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    Chapter 2, entitled, “Climate and Early Modern World Environmental History,” focuses not only on the differential effects of the Little Ice Age across the Atlantic, but also surveys its less well-known impact in China and other parts of the world. In addition, Richards provides a concise overview of the scholarship, including directions for future research.

  • Rotberg, Robert, and Theodore Rabb, eds. Climate and History: Studies in Interdisciplinary History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

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    Essays originally published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History by leading historians such as David Herlihy, David Hackett Fischer, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and Jan de Vries, considering the role of the Little Ice Age in drought, subsistence crises, and epidemics; French viticulture; and methodological and interpretive problems that historians face in integrating scientific studies with documentary evidence.

  • Wigley, T. M. L., M. J. Ingram, and G. Farmer, eds. Climate and History: Studies in Past Climates and Their Impact on Man. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    This essay collection developed out of a major interdisciplinary conference on the global history of climate change, organized by H. H. Lamb in 1979 at the University of East Anglia. The essays represent an array of approaches. A number of historical case studies focus on regions around the Atlantic, including late medieval Castile, Norse Greenland, Brittany in the 1780s, and southern Africa and the state of Maine in the 19th century.

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