Thursday, December 17, 2009

Frost Fairs

Frost Fairs

I was looking for information on "Frost Fairs," an interesting artifact, it has been claimed, of "the Little Ice Age." Frost Fairs were held when the Thames froze over so solidly that not only could you walk across the river at London--but carriages stopped using bridges, and an entire small city was built out there. Livestock were slaughtered and roasted on the ice, and print shops would set up to print novelty goods: "printed on the Thames." These Frost Fairs sometimes lasted for months.

Among the interesting items that I found while searching was this issue of the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society (1901), in which Albert E. Watson's "A Review of Past Severe Winters in England, with Deductions Therefrom" appeared:
About 9 years ago, in a letter to The Times, I pointed out, as an interesting and remarkable fact, that during the last 40 years the winter from 0 to 1 in each decade has been distinguished by its great severity. Curious to see how far this would hold good, I searched past records and published the results in a local newspaper, and then let the matter drop; but recently, since another decade has rolled away, and we are again face to face with another 0 to 1 winter, I have examined the subject more thoroughly, and the results obtained are so peculiar and significant that they seem worthy of more than a local circulation. I will first, therefore, examine the severe winters of the last 300 years, make notes upon each in proof of its severity, and afterwards consider the results of these investigations, and the conclusions to which they point.
Quite interesting. While one of the commenters on the paper pointed out the lack of hard data upon which Watson was characterizing "severe winters," he pointed out that there was data for the last 60 years that fit with Watson's observations:
Nevertheless, from a scientific point of view, it was to be regretted that, at all events for the winters of the past century, some clear definition had not been given as to what the author meant by a "severe winter." There were so many different ways of gauging severe winters that it became necessary, whatever test be adopted, that the same test be applied to each winter in the series. Mr. Watson's deductions were in the main supported by the Greenwich records for the last 60 years.
So, what would cause harsher weather every ten years or so? The obvious answer is: sunspot cycles are on roughly an eleven year cycle--and that interval varies. This page indicates:
Between 1700 and today, the sunspot cycle (from one solar min to the next solar min) has varied in length from as short as nine years to as long as fourteen years.
Intriguing, isn't it?

Some of those arguing that the current warming is largely driven by solar changes mention the Frost Fairs--which are no longer within the memory of any living Briton. But that 1901 article also makes the claim that at least part of what changed was:
that the state of the Thames was very different before the removal of old London Bridge about 1825 to what it was now; old London Bridge, acting as a half tidal dam, greatly diminishing the range of the tide, and probably accounting for the fact of the water freezing more often than it did now.
There does seem to be clear evidence, however, that the weather was colder, and more importantly, it stayed cold for months on end--in a way that is no longer the case. Other articles list events where the Thames froze over--but largely before the Medieval Warm Period, and again starting in the eleventh century, as the Little Ice Age starts to arrive:

To turn to the earliest periods of English history, we find the Thames frozen over in A.d. 134 for two months, in 153 for three months, in 250 for nine weeks, in 290 for six weeks, and so on at intervals of various distances of time.

In the"Harleian Miscellany," vol. iii., page 167, it is recorded that " in the tenth year of the reign of William the Conqueror, the cold of winter was exceeding memorable, both for sharpness and for continuance ; for the earth remained hard from the beginning of November until the midst of April then ensuing." I am unable to discover whether, just as the great heat of the jubilee year was preceded by a cold and very late spring, so this extraordinary winter (which is, perhaps, at the bottom of the expression so often used by old-fashioned people, of seasonable weather) was followed by a very hot summer.

In those days, money and science could not, as they do to-day, make our houses independent of cold ; for ten years afterwards, as Walford, in his " Insurance Cyclopaedia," tells us, the weather was so inclement that in the unusual efforts made to warm the houses, nearly all the chief cities of the kingdom were destroyed by fire, including a great part of London and St. Paul's. Nor at that period of English history were we independent of our own food supply. London was not then, as it is now, the market of the world, for in 1121-22 a severe frost killed the grain crops and a famine followed.

In 1281-82 a very severe winter was followed by an equally dry summer, for in Stow, edited by Howes, 1631, we find tne following statement: —

From Christmas to the Purification of our Lady there was such a frost and snow as no man living could remember the like: when through five arches of London Bridge and all Rochester Bridge were borne downe and carried away by the streame; and the like hapned to many other bridges in England; and not long after, men passed over the Thames between Westminster and Lambeth dryshod.

I found gobs of other interesting sources, many of them quite old, about Frost Fairs--and I also ran into one very odd science fiction story here set in a future Ice Age where mankind's technology has dropped back to a medieval level. It's really not suited to children, because we learn that in such a future, a girl's best defense against rape involves handguns. The author is, shockingly enough, a British Ph.D. in Astronomy who works for the European Space Agency.

No comments:

Post a Comment