Volcanic origin for Little Ice Age
An international research team studied ancient plants from Iceland and Canada, and sediments carried by glaciers.
They say a series of eruptions just before 1300 lowered Arctic temperatures enough for ice sheets to expand.
Writing in Geophysical Research Letters, they say this would have kept the Earth cool for centuries.
The exact definition of the Little Ice Age is disputed. While many studies suggest temperatures fell globally in the 1500s, others suggest the Arctic and sub-Arctic began cooling several centuries previously.
The global dip in temperatures was less than 1C, but parts of Europe cooled more, particularly in winter, with the River Thames in London iced thickly enough to be traversable on foot.
What caused it has been uncertain. The new study, led by Gifford Miller at the University of Colorado at Boulder, US, links back to a series of four explosive volcanic eruptions between about 1250 and 1300 in the tropics, which would have blasted huge clouds of sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere.
These tiny aerosol particles are known to cool the globe by reflecting solar energy back into space.
The Little Ice Age saw an increase in cold winters in parts of Europe, but a small global change
“This is the first time that anyone has clearly identified the specific onset of the cold times marking the start of the Little Ice Age,” said Dr Miller.
“We have also provided an understandable climate feedback system that explains how this cold period could be sustained for a long period of time.”
The scientists studied several sites in north-eastern Canada and in Iceland where small icecaps have expanded and contracted over the centuries.
When the ice spreads, plants underneath are killed and “entombed” in the ice. Carbon-dating can determine how long ago this happene