Year 1500-1599 AD

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1564: The Nevatters of Mallorca

Satellite picture showing western Mediterranean Sea with Mallorca (arrow). Source: Google Earth


In 1564 the concept of nevater or snowman was fashioned in Mallorca, western Mediterranean, about 200 km east of Spain. The nevaters had the very specialized responsibility of collecting and storing snow deposited on the highest summits of NW Mallorca during the winter. 

As climate was cooling during the first part of the Little Ice age the amount of winter snow increased in the mountains of Mallorca, which reaches altitudes of 1445 m above sea level. At the same time there was an increasing demand of ice for cooling purposes in the lowlands during the summer, because of developing agriculture. 

The nevaters therefore constructed special cases de sa ne, or snow houses, at high altitudes. These snow houses had a special roof construction, which insulated efficiently against warm outside air during spring and summer. Each winter the nevaters filled the houses with compacted snow from the surroundings terrain, and the following summer the snow (now turned partly into ice) was transported to the lowlands. In the year 1699 people on the island Gran Canaria west of Africa would follow suit, beginning to collect snow for cooling purposes. 

On Mallorca, the nevaters for long time had a hard, but respected, work. First as late as 1927, the combination of warming following the end of the Little Ice Age and the invention of electrical refrigerators brought an end to the activity of the nevaters.


Left: Nevaters at work in Mallorca, transporting snow to a snow house in Mallorca. Right: Remnants of a snow house at 1250 m asl., shortly below the summit of Masanella 1349 m asl., 30 October 2007. Note person for scale.

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1570: All Saints Floods

Storms became frequent in Europe during cold periods of the Little Ice Age. Global temperatures were decreasing, especially at high latitudes, thereby increasing the thermal contrast between Equator and the Poles, especially during the winter. This temperature gradient is one of the fundamentally drivers for mid-latitude storms. Landscapes and societies were clearly affected by this development.

The large inland sea Ijsselmeer in the Netherlands was created by floods in the 14th century, and the island Helgoland in the German Bight was reduced from about 60 to c. 1.5 km2 by coastal erosion during the Little Ice Age.

The storm known as All Saints Floods 11-12 November 1570, however, stand out as a very extraordinary event. This storm affected most of the North Sea between Britain and Denmark , and adjoining land areas. Presumably the Netherland was hit hardest. The cities Amsterdam, Muyden, Rotterdam and Dordrecht were all flooded. Somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 persons are reported to have drowned. This represents an exceptionally high number of casualties, which should be seen in relation to the much smaller total population at that time.

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1576-1578: Martin Frobisher attempts to find the Northwest Passage

Sir Martin Frobisher painted by Cornelis Ketel in 1577 (left). World map used by Frobisher on his first voyage to the Arctic, produced 1569 by the geographer Geraldus Mercator (centre).  The map indicates the existence of a broad channel between the New World (North America; lower left) and a continent with four big river systems in the centre of the Arctic Ocean. Frobisher's route from England to Baffin Island (right).


Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-1594) was an English seaman who became known for his three voyages to northeastern Canada to find the Northwest Passage. As early as around 1560, Frobisher had decided to undertake a voyage in search of a Northwest Passage as a trade-route to India and China (Cathay).

In 1576, at last, Frobisher had gained the necessary funding for his project. He managed to convince the English merchant consortium the Muscovy Company, which previously had sent out parties searching for the Northwest Passage, to license his expedition.

With the help of Micheal Lok, the Muscovy Company's director, Frobisher was able to raise enough capital for three small ships: the Gabriel and Michael, of about 20-25 tons each, and a pinnace of ten tons, with a total crew of 35. He set sail for the New World on June 7, 1576. In a storm, however, the pinnace was lost, and the Michael was abandoned, but on July 28, the Gabriel sighted the coast of Labrador. Frobisher turned north, and a few days later the mouth of Frobisher Bay (Baffin Island) was reached. Sea ice and wind made further travel north impossible, and Frobisher therefore determined to sail westward up this passage to see where it lead.

Frobisher landed on Baffin Island on the 18 August 1576, and the expedition met a group of Inuit's. He agreed with one of the Inuit's to guide them through the region, and sent five of his men in a ship's boat to return the person to shore. The boat's crew, however, were apparently taken captive by the Inuits, without Frobisher being able to recover them. He therefore took hostage the man who had agreed to guide them, to see if an exchange for the captured five men could be arranged. The effort was however fruitless, and the men were never seen again. Frobisher then turned homewards, and reached London on October 9. Here he presented a piece of black stone as representing potentially valuable gold ore. Not all experts agreed entirely on this geological interpretation, but The Muscovy Company nevertheless in a skilled way used Frobisher's assessment of the rock to lobby for investment for another voyage.

During the following year, 1577, a second and much bigger expedition was prepared. The English Queen now was very supportive, and sold the Royal Navy ship Ayde to the expedition (the Company of Cathay) and provided £1000 to cover the expenses of the expedition. The Company of Cathay was granted a charter from the crown, giving the company the sole right of sailing in every direction but the east. Frobisher himself was appointed high admiral of all lands and waters that might be discovered by him.

With the three ships Ayde, Gabriel and Michael the expedition left on 25 May 1577 with 150 men, including miners, refiners, a number of gentlemen, and soldiers. Hall’s Island at the mouth of Frobisher Bay was reached on 17 July. A few days later the region and the south side of the bay was solemnly taken possession of in the queen's name.

The following time was spent in collecting ore, and only little was done in the way of geographical discovery. There was parleying and some skirmishing with the Inuits, and futile attempts were made to recover the five men captured during the first expedition. A couple of Inuits were taken prisoner and brought back to England for display and study.


Contact between Martin Frobisher's expedition and the Inuits of Baffin Island (left). Drawings of two Inuits brought back to England (centre and right).

The return journey was begun on 23 August 1577, and the expedition arrived back in England on 23 September, with about 200 tons of alleged gold ore. Frobisher was received by the queen, who decided to name the newly discovered territory Meta Incognita. On this promising background, it was resolved to send out a third expedition, to establish a colony of 100 men.

The third expedition left Harwich on 30 June 1578, with no less than fifteen vessels. June 20 Southern Greenland was reached, and Frobisher and some of his men managed to land, but without meeting any local inhabitants. A few days later, on 2 July, the mouth of Frobisher Bay was sighted. Stormy weather and sea ice prevented the ships to proceed up the bay, and caused the loss of one ship. The remaining ships were forced to retreat into a unknown strait (Hudson Strait). After proceeding about sixty miles up this "mistaken strait," Frobisher with reluctance turned back, and the fleet at last came to anchor in Frobisher Bay.

Some attempt was made at founding a settlement, and a large quantity of ore was shipped. A successful settlement, however, was prevented by dissension and discontent. On the last day of August, the fleet set out on its return to England, which was reached in the beginning of October. The ore was taken to a specially constructed smelting plant. Here it unfortunately turned out that the ore was not worth smelting, but instead it made good use in Elizabethan road construction. This ended Frobisher's attempts at the Northwest Passage .

Martin Frobisher still proved interested in economical aspects of life, and later as an English pirate collected riches from French ships. He was later knighted for his service in the dispersion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, under the supreme command of Sir Francis Drake.

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1588: The Spanish Armada destroyed by storm

King Filip II of Spain (left). The Spanish Armada assembling at Lisboa, Portugal, in May 1588 (centre). Queen Elizabeth I of England (right).


King Filip II ruled Spain from 1556 to 1598. He was not only King of Spain, but also King of Portugal, King of Naples, Ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, and Duke of Milan.

King Philip II initially had sought an alliance with the Kingdom of England by marriage with the Catholic Queen Mary I of England . By this marriage Philip became king consort during the lifetime of Queen Mary I. At the same time, he also received the Kingdom of Neaples and the title of King of Jerusalem. When Queen Mary I died in 1558, Philip may have been inclined to marry her younger half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth, who was a Protestant, was inclined to venture into such a marriage.

King Philip II at the same time had an ongoing conflict with Dutch rebels. The Dutch rebel leader William I, Prince of Orange, was outlawed by Philip and assassinated in 1584 after Philip had offered a reward of 25,000 crowns to anyone who killed him. The Dutch resistance forces however continued to fight on, using their substantial naval resources to plunder Spanish ships and blockade the Spanish-controlled southern provinces. When England provided support for the Deutch rebels, King Plilip II saw an opportunity to invade England and to return the country to Catholicism.

The large Spanish army standing in the Netherlands fighting the Deutch resistance forces was in a fine position to do the job. However, just like Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1940, he first had to solve the problem of transporting the army across the Channel to England . Presumably, the British Navy would not sit back passive and see this happen. Therefore, first the British Navy had to be neutralized while ferrying the Spanish Army across the sea to England . The Royal Spanish Navy was large and powerful, and should be able to do the job.

The Spanish Armada, also known as the Invincible Armada, was assembled during the spring of 1588. In total 130 ships with 30,000 on board were under command of the Duke of Sidonia, Medina Sidonia. The fleet set sail on 28 May 1588 with 22 warships of the Spanish Royal Navy and 108 converted merchant vessels. The intension was to sail north to the English Channel . Here the fleet should anchor off the coast of Flanders, where the Duke of Parma would stand ready with his army to be transported across the Channel to the south-east of England .

English fleet under command of Sir Francis Drake was assembled at Plymouth, awaiting news of Spanish movements. The Spanish Armada was, however, delayed by adverse weather and did not reach Cornwall in SW England before July 19.

During the period 20-26 July 1588 several sea battles developed in the Channel region between the Spanish Armada and the English Navy, none of which were decisive. A major problem for the Armada was the lack of secure harbours, where their large ships could obtain supplies of water and other provisions. After all, they had already been at sea for two months. Also the lack of good lines of communication between Philip II and his two commanders at land and sea, respectively, contributed to the awkward situation for the Spanish fleet.

On the evening of July 27 the Armada was anchored off Calais in a defensive formation. At midnight between 27 and 28 July the English Navy attacked by launching eight fireships drifting with the south-westerly winds. The Armada had to lift anchor in a hurry, and in the now increasing rising south-westerly wind the fleet was not able to recover its defensive formation. To make things worse, during their narrow escape from the English fireships, many Spanish ships had been forced to cut their anchor to get under sail rapidly. Under these circumstances, the Spanish Admiral, the Duke of Sidonia, was understandingly reluctant to sail further east owing to the danger from the shoals off Flanders, where the Dutch rebels had removed all sea-marks.

In the shallow waters, the smaller English ships had superior manoeuvrability, and closed in for battle while maintaining a position to windward (upwind). Having the windward position enabled the English ships to fire damaging broadsides into the heeling enemy ships below the water-line. Eleven Spanish ships were lost or damaged during this action.

The next day the wind turned southerly, enabling Medina Sidonia to move the Armada north, into the North Sea, where there was wider space for his big ships to operate. The English fleet pursued in an attempt to prevent the enemy from returning to escort the Spanish Army across the Channel to England. On 12 August both fleets were in the latitude of the Firth of Forth, off the east coast of Scotland. Now the Spanish, being at sea for several weeks, were suffering from thirst and exhaustion. In this situation, Medina Sidonia decided that the most prudent decision would be to chart a course home to Spain , along the exposed west coast of Scotland and Ireland. In addition the wind was picking up from the south-east, which would make crossing back to the English Channel difficult and time-consuming. Presumably the wind was increasing in response to an approaching storm from the west.

Off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland the fleet ran into a storm (not usual at these latitudes in mid August in modern times) with fierce winds from westerly and north-westerly direction. Probably the storm centre was passing shortly south of the Armada, which the navigated into the dangerous NW-quadrant, with strong north-westerly winds behind the storm centre. The Spanish ships long attempted to fight the storm, but due to their construction they were not able to cross efficiently against the wind. Many of the ships drove off course and away from the safety of the open sea. Many anchors had been abandoned during the forced escape from the English fireships off Calais, and the ships were therefore incapable of securing shelter as they reached the coast of Ireland. Instead they were in great numbers driven on to the rocky west coast of Ireland. In the end, only 67 Spanish ships and around 10,000 men survived and made it back to Spain.


The Spanish Armada being attacked by English fireships in the night between 27 and 28 July 1588. Oil painting by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (left). Route taken by the Spanish Armada May-August 1588 (centre). Spanish ship wrecked on the west coast of Ireland August 1588, Illustration from The Art Gallery Illustrated (right).


From an official English political point of view the outcome was a major triumph for the English Navy and for Sir Francis Drake. In reality it was a climate-induced disaster for Spain and King Philip II, who rightfully complained that he had sent his ships to fight the English, not the elements. The immediate political effect was the survival of the Kingdom of England and the gradual transfer of world sea dominance to the British Navy: Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves.

From a meteorological point of view the strong westerly and north-westerly winds suggest a major storm centre travelling across England, in response to a relatively southerly position of the Polar Jet Stream. Presumably the meteorological situation was much alike that bringing about the wet, windy and cold summer of 2007 in NW Europe.

This British newborn naval sea dominance was going to be the backbone in the developing British Empire over the centuries to follow, and was to last until the 2nd World War. After having rebuild their fleet after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour (December 1941), the US navy around 1944 became the leading naval power.

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1520-1600 AD: The Tudor inflation

The index of the purchasing power of builders’ wages in southern England over six centuries (Figure 3 in Brown and Hopkins 1956).


The profound check on population pressure brought about the Black Death, and sustained by subsequent bouts of the plague, reduced the pressure on agricultural resources in Europe for some 150 years (Burroughs, 1997). Although the fifteenth century was not without climatic hardships (the 1430s being a decade featuring many savage winters in Europe; Lamb 1995) and harvest failures, the recorded incidence of famines was lower than in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

The relative abundance of the fifteenth century is excellently illustrated by the comprehensive work by Sir Henry Phelps-Brown and Sheila Hopkins on wages and prices in southern England (Phelps-Brown and Hopkins 1956).This shows (figure above) that the purchasing power of wages, as represented by those paid to building craftsmen, rose in the second half of the fourteenth century and remained at high levels until the first decades of the sixteenth century. They then fell steadily to reach a nadir in 1597, the year of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night’s Dream,  and then rose very slowly until a more rapid rise in the early part of nineteenth century. However, the purchasing power of wages in southern England did not return to fifteenth century levels until late in the second half of the nineteenth century.

There are a number of occasional drops in the wage index between 1400 and 1520, notably in 1439 and 1482, but the overall picture is one of underlying price stability during this period. This makes the fivefold rise in prices that started in 1520 so intriguing to economists. Analysis of prices and wages in France has produced a similar picture.

Known as the ‘Tudor Inflation’, the rise in prices - and the correspondingly drop in wage purchasing power - during the sixteenth century has been variously attributed to demographic pressures and to the influx of gold and silver from the Americas which inflated the money supply in England. Some has suggested this development to represent a Malthusian crisis, the effect of a rapid growth of population impinging on an insufficiently expansive economy (Phelps-Brown and Hopkins 1956).

Whatever the reason for the Tudor inflation, this development lead to the so-called Mid-Tudor crisis between 1547 (the death of Henry VIII) and 1558 (the death of Mary Tudor), where English government and society were in imminent danger of collapse in the face of a combination of weak rulers, economic pressures, a series of rebellions, religious upheaval in the wake of the English Reformation, and other factors.

Among other factors one especially tend to stand out: The Tudor inflation coincided with a marked cooling of the climate (The Little Ice Age), especially well documented in NW Europe. The GISP2 ice core from central Greenland adds support to this notion (figure below).  

Greenland GISP2 annual delta 18O values. The thin line shows the 5-yr running average, and the thick line represent the 41-yr running average. The period of the Tudor Inflation is indicated by grey colour.


The Greenland ice core data suggests that, although on average not being quite as cold as the later 1650-1750 period, the period of the Tudor Inflation was indeed characterised by recurrent very cold years (spikes indicating low 5-yr average d18O values). In contrast, the preceding period 1390-1520, corresponding to the period of high purchasing power of wages in southern England, was characterised by an absence of such cold spikes. Presumably, recurrent 2-3 cold years in a row during the period of Tudor Inflation may have induced recurrent harvest failures and from this, rising prices. 


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