Living During the Little Ice Age

Main content

Students brainstorm what the living conditions during the period known as the Little Ice Age (AD 13501850) might have been like. Then students study information about lifestyles, the economy, crop yields, and human and livestock mortality during the Little Ice Age. They compare and discuss what they have learned.

Learning Objectives

  • Students will understand the nature of the Little Ice Age (AD 13501850).
  • Students will understand how historical records of crops, economics, and famine, as well as art, document climatic changes during the Little Ice Age.
  • Students will interpret and compare data using graphs.

Time

  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Class time: one 30- to 45-minute class period to do the activity

Educational Standards

Next Generation Science Standards

  • HS-ESS2-4. Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth's systems result in changes in climate.
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas: ESS2.A. Earth Materials and Systems, ESS2.D. Weather and Climate
  • Crosscutting Concepts: Cause and Effect, Stability and Change
  • Science and Engineering Practices: Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Materials

Preparation

  • Prepare copies of the Student Pages for each student or each pair of students.
  • Review the Living During the Little Ice Age Slide Deck and the graphs therein.

Directions

  1. Explain to students that in this lesson they will study how people living in Northern Europe were affected by climate change a few hundred years ago. Project the map of Northern Europe in theLiving During the Little Ice Age Slide Deck(slide 2) to familiarize your students with the region you are focusing on today.
  2. Tell students that between 1300 and 1850 many parts of the world experienced repeated unusually cool conditions that scientists named the "Little Ice Age." During these cooler times, winters were longer and colder than normal, and summers were shorter and cooler.
  3. Ask students what they think the living conditions would have been like during this time, and list student ideas on the board. They should understand that people living during the Little Ice Age would have been affected by:
    • Decreases in plant growth
    • Crop failures and reduced productivity of plants and animals they used for food
    • Increased death of humans and livestock due to famine and illness
  4. Project the painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder of a typical winter day during the Little Ice Age (slide 3). Tell students that sometimes paintings can be used as evidence of past climate. Hold a discussion with the class about the painting using the following prompts:
    • How do you think the painting shows the effects of weather and/or climate?
    • Do you think that this painting is based on reality or fiction? Explain your answer.
    • What additional information would you like to have in order to know if the artwork represents the real weather or climate conditions of the time?
  5. Split students into pairs and provide each pair with either Student Page 1 or 2 (or give each pair a copy of both student pages, if time permits). Provide time for students to answer the questions as they study the information on their student page(s).
  6. Bring the students together to share the documented effects of the Little Ice Age. Show the climate and the cost of grain in Germany graphs (slide 4) and discuss their conclusions, answering the question:How does the cost of grain in Germany change between 1500 and 1700?Show the climate and farming in Scotland graphs (slide 5) and discuss their conclusions, answering the question:There was less to eat in Scotland during which years?
  7. Wrap up by showing the graphs of farming in Scotland and cost of grain in Germany together (slide 6). Ask students:How is climate related to grain in Germany and farming in Scotland?

Background

The Little Ice Age (AD 1350–1850) was a period of particularly harsh climatic conditions across most parts of the world. Most of the information we have about the Little Ice Age comes from Northern Europe because extensive records were kept there. A combination of decreased solar activity and numerous large volcanic eruptions cooled Earth's climate. Cooling caused glaciers to advance and stunted tree growth. Livestock died, harvests failed, and humans suffered from increased famine and disease. The Little Ice Age illustrates changes to climate that occur when the Sun is less active and cooling of Earth is exacerbated by volcanic eruptions. Many other examples of climate change due to natural forces exist, including the Year Without a Summer (1816), which followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. At an earlier time, Europe experienced a warm period which may have helped the Vikings settle Greenland. In order to understand the current climate change debate, one must understand the natural events and cycles that play an important role in affecting climate on Earth.

Key Concepts:

  • The Little Ice Age was a period of unusually cool conditions between AD 1300 and 1850.
  • Humans experienced increased illness and famine during the Little Ice Age.
  • Livestock survival and crop productivity decreased.
  • The cost of food increased due to shortages and low crop yields.
  • The Little Ice Age was preceded and followed by periods of warmer climate.

Additional Resources:

Credits

This activity, from the Climate Discovery Teacher's Guide, was updated in 2021 by Melissa Rummel of the UCAR Center for Science Education.