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Climate Change throughout history

Discussion in 'Research' started by Yora, Sep 11, 2019.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    We often think of climate change as a unique thing that is a first time in ever, but really the only things that makes this one different is that it's greatly accelerated and amplified by human activity. But history was affected by similar changes quite drastically before.

    A Song of Ice and Fire is a very prominent example of huge political upheavals in the face of an approaching winter that will last for many years. But the coming of a more distant ice age is also a looming threat in the Witcher series, and I recently realized that the old Command & Conquer games also revolve around populations being drawn to extreme ideologies as large parts of the world become increasingly uninhabitable. (Apparently fiction writers in the 90s were on to something.)

    And that had me wonder how many great events or significant periods in history, that make great reference frames for fantastic stories, are also tied to environmental changes?

    The main one I can think of is the 14th century cold period. Even though it kept getting colder after that, this period saw widespread malnutrition making the people susceptible to the plague, which was so devastating that it destroyed the medieval feudal system by completely changing the demand and supply of labor. And I've also heard that a century earlier, changing climate in central Asia motivated the Mongols to expand into literally greener pastures.

    The end of the Bronze Age is also often attributed to climate change as a major factor by many historians. The big empires had been doing seemingly very well for century, and then in the span of decades all disappeared, leaving only reports of huge hordes of peoples coming from the sea to raid their lands. Apparently some kind of huge refugee migration caused by climate change in Europe. And of course, the near east empires weren't in great shape at that time either. The Egyptians were the only Bronze Age civilization that survived, but they never got anywhere close to their former fame. In Greece, writing disappeared completely for centuries, and when a new Greek culture appears in historic records, the new word for "king" is the old Mycenean word for "village headman". There was just nothing left.

    Do you know about other historic periods driving by environmental changes or know more details about these examples? I think it's a fascinating topic, but one I see rarely discussed in fantasy discussions.
     
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  2. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    There was a medieval warm period between 950 to 1050 that researches say may be responsible for the Norse venturing out and exploring further and farther reaches. We know they reached as far as Eastern Canada around 1000AD and that may have been because during the medieval warming phase there were possibly less ice bergs to navigate and the Atlantic current patterns may have been different. Fascinating stuff.
     
  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    In the Disney film Moana the writers touch on some "true" climate history. Researchers know that the Polonysian people had been quite active way finders, expanding out to Samoa around 3500 years ago... but then for some reason they stopped expanding completely for around 1500 years before starting up again 1000 years ago.

    Scientists couldn't figure out why a people who were so focused on expansion would stop for almost 1500 years, then all of a sudden, around 1000 AD would manage to travel to the Easter Islands, Hawaii and New Zealand.

    In the movie they use mythology to suggest that the God Maui stole the heart of the mother island and this made the ocean far too dangerous to travel. They also show how the plants are becoming diseased, etc.

    Scientists now know that there is some truth to the myth (as there usually is, lol). It was likely that a climate shift caused the ocean currents to change, which would have also changed weather patterns, etc, making travel much too dangerous.

    Then, around 1000 years ago (not coincidentally the same time the Vikings started venturing out) the Polonysians found the oceans much changed. A warming period made the seas less volatile and the weather more manageable, and possibly higher winds made fast travel more likely... so they were able to start voyaging again.
     
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  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    WRT the 14thc, there's a good book by William Chester Jordan called The Great Famine. Your best bet is a library, as it's sold at academic prices. *grumble*

    There was another cold period in the early modern era. The Thames froze over for two full months in the 1680s. There's a fairly extensive literature on the early modern "little ice age" because we have better documentation than from earlier centuries. A shift in mean temperature beginning in the later 18thc coincided nicely with a number of technological and scientific changes to give us the modern agricultural revolution, without which the Industrial Revolution would have had far less manpower available to it.

    How one makes historical climate shifts into a story is another matter!
     
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  5. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Which reminds me of the Germanic migration into Britain. The Frisians, Saxons, Angles, and Jutes had been under hard environmental strains that encouraged them to abandon their old homelands.
    Which I think might just be one aspect of the wider Migration Era in Europe, which started when the Huns pushed into eastern Europe from the Eurasian Steppes, pushing all the people living them before them, who then displaced the people in the places they found refuge in. Which in the End led to Scandinavians ruling in Spain and Tunisia. That makes the Mongols pulling the same stunt a thousand years later look tame in comparison.

    Another related thing that comes to mind is how the mythological creation of the first Chinese state began with an engineer who developed a method to protect the people from the devastating floods that frequently destroyed the farmlands. Flooding in China has always been a problem and threat, as far as I am aware, but I think there was evidence that during the prehistoric era it did get exceptionally bad. In it's own mythology, the greatest and longest civilization of all time, attributes its existence to the handling of natural disasters.
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Natural disasters definitely have potential for story-telling. They aren't used often enough in fantasy, imo. Landslides, avalanches, strong winds, lightning strikes, fire and flood, earthquakes, building collapse (e.g. the collapse of the cathedral at Beauvais) ... heck, even stampedes. All these have been used in traditional literature and genre literature for generations. They're naturally exciting and a great chance for captains of Gondor to show their quality. <g> And then think what fun to give each of them a magic spin.

    Anyway, those might be exacerbated by secular changes in climate, but that's on such a long-term scale it's hard to see how to work it into a novel. Jemisin managed it, but applications are limited, I should think. Asimov did it with his short story "Night" too.
     
  7. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

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    Hurricanes/typhoons have made several appearances in my stuff, maybe because I lived through a few of them myself. Indeed, the whole concept of the portals that I placed between our world and my primary fantasy world was that they were opened by powerful cyclonic forces, i.e. entered through the eye of the hurricane. But earthquakes are good too. There is a wide-spread earthquake and volcanic activity disaster that has been prophesied but I haven't gotten around to putting in a story yet that will effect climate for at least a decade (or two) thanks to ash in the atmosphere. And bring down at least one empire in the process.
     
  8. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Greenland wasn’t named Greenland for nothing... Washington crossing the Delaware painting didn’t have ice in the river for dramatic effect. My relatives moved from the Connecticut area because of the “Year with no Summer”. Climate change is a constant and always useful in fantasy, though not necessarily easy considering geologic time. So, it’s best to work on the fringes of the timeframe. Waiting for that glacier to get to you might be a tad boring, heh heh. Now, watching a sheet of ice melt that holds a dragon... that has drama! To hell with that paranoia about diseases thawing out, gimme a dragon. Or, I guess, Alien vs Predator.

    My brain is not coming up with something I read or watched recently, which spoke of a comparison between Central America and Europe, and how poorly the peoples in Mesoamerica failed to adapt and it pummeled their cultures. BUT, you’re going to find a lot of “finding what you’re looking for” as people explore events and climate throughout history. Not that those can’t be good inspiration for fantasy. Man, that’s gonna drive me nuts... but it seems like it at the same time as the Medieval warm period was coming to an end. I might have to track that one down.

    Natural disasters will figure prominently in my work, from flash floods to volcanoes and earthquakes and whatever else crosses my mind. Climate will change, but it isn’t like they’ll have thermometers to whip up fanciful hockey sticks and fret about it, they’ll just adapt as ancient peoples were wont to do.
     
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  9. Yora

    Yora Maester

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  10. Gray-Hand

    Gray-Hand Minstrel

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    The Mayans suffered a civilisational collapse that caused them to abandon their cities. There are multiple theories, but they be of the most popular is catastrophic crop failure due to soil degradation brought about by overfarming.

    The Minoan civilisation probably collapsed due to a volcanic eruption.

    The Easter Islanders cut down all their trees. What was going through the head of the guy that cut down that last tree?
     
  11. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    That Today's Need is greater than Tomorrow's Want. Easter Island is a haunting case of what goes wrong in a society. For years they must have seen what they were doing was unsustainable and yet they just carried on. I think the last dateable remains are in a small sea cliff overlooking a bird colony...
     
  12. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

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    Hi,

    What about pre-history. Think of the last ice age and the changes that wrought upon the world!

    Cheers, Greg.
     
  13. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Sage

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    A single storm or blight could wipe out a country's staple crop and create a famine which not only creates social and political instability but it can also result in major population shifts. This is what happened in the Irish Famine of the 1840s. The inept and often callous indifference of the British government towards the famine played a major role in the push for Irish Home Rule, the 1916 Easter Uprising and the independence of Ireland. Millions of Irish people moved to countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Think of what these countries might've been like without those Irish migrants building roads, dams, farms and cities. I would not exist if that movement of Irish people had not taken place.

    On a microscopic scale consider the impact of two of the most powerful hurricanes in the Caribbean in 2017 that devastated Puerto Rico, Dominica and other islands. Infrastructure, housing, schools, hospitals and agriculture were wiped out. Thousands of people were killed. Many people ended up homeless and a lot of people from these islands have relocated to other countries (or to the country that administers them). Their economies were devastated. Could you imagine the devastation and longer term impacts upon economies, agriculture and societies in the Caribbean if such powerful storms became more frequent as the result of global climate change?

    One of the things that surprises me is how so many fictional writers think that disasters have to be continental or global in size in order to make a good story but that isn't necessarily the case. Skip.knox makes the point that natural disasters are often under-used in fiction - something I agree with - but I have found from having read quite a few disaster novels and watching a lot of disaster movies that they are usually terrible. Perhaps if they read a little more science and watched a lot less of the pseudo-science and pseudo-history that now dominates the National Geographic and History Channels they'd do a better job of it.

    At least that's my take on it.
     
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