IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
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The Little Ice Age in Spain

The decline in temperatures throughout the world between the15th and 19th centuries, commonly and poetically known as 'the Little Ice Age' is a well documented event supported by copious and extremely diverse scientific and historical evidence, ranging from studies of ice core and tree ring samples to the disappearance of the fledging Viking agricultural colony under Greenland's ice sheets and the prevalence of snowy landscapes in the art of the time. Scientific consensus reckons on a temperature of 1º to 2º C lower than today in Northern Europe, but is there evidence for a cooling in the Mediterranean and Spain?

Climate history, always a complex game, is doubly difficult in a country with such an inherently variable climate, subject to violent changes from one year to the next. As elsewhere, reliable climate records do not go back that far, but other evidence for the Peninsula does seem to support the general world trend.

Salas and others (Nuestro Porvenir Climático, 2001) mention the Ebro freezing 7 times between 1505 and 1789. In 1788 and again in 1789 the river remained frozen for fifteen days. (Annoyingly, it doesn't mention where, though I think it implies that it occurred near the Mediterranean). The book also notes one of the best documented studies of the Little Ice Age in Spain: the presence of an extensive network of ice stores known varyingly as neveras, pozos de nieve, ventisqueros and glaceres , which were built and maintained between the 16th and 19th centuries along the Eastern Mediterranean, some in areas where it no longer snows even one day. The storage and distribution of ice was a lively business involving whole sections of the rural population.

Photos from book Los Pozos de Nieve de Sierra Espuña

There is also ample evidence of glaciers expanding in the Pyrenees during the period: they have been melting ever since. Moreover, the glacier remnants of the Sierra Nevada which finally succumbed at the end of the 20th century, originated at this time, and were not, as is sometimes claimed, remains of the last true Ice Age. The last true glaciers of the Sierra Nevada and Los Picos de Europa melted at the end of the 19th century. Temperatures in Europe are thought to have been 1º-1.5ºC higher than today during the so-called Medieval Optimum of the 9th to 13th centuries, and so these glaciers, and even those of the Pyrenees, would have surely melted. The current Pyrenean glaciers were also principally formed during this cold period and have been slowly melting ever since its end. Total surface area of the glaciers on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees has dropped from 1779 hectares in 1894 to 290 in 2000. See Spain's glaciers melting Glaciers melting fast.

Decline of Monte Perdido glacier since 1904
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Martin and Olcina in 'Clima y Tiempos de España' note four periods of catastrophic events (mid-15th century, 1570-1610, 1769-1800 and 1820-1860) marked by heavy rains, snowfalls and sea storms. These were interspersed with interludes of droughts far more severe and persistent than those of today (so far). This is backed by surely one of the most bizarre attempts at deducing a historical climate: extrapolating from pro pluvium prayers to produce a yearly rainfall graph.

Another study by Sousa, A. and P.  Garcia-Murillo (1) from 2003 looked at the changes in the wetlands of Andalusia (specifically, Doñana) at the end of the Little Ice Age.  The authors found that The Little Ice Age was by no means uniform in the region of study, and included both wetter and drier periods. Quoting other authors they note that "the LIA was characterized in the southern Iberian Peninsula by increased rainfall." and that "climatic conditions inducing the LIA glacier advances [of Northern Europe] were also responsible for an increase in flooding frequency and sedimentation in Mediterranean Europe." 

The authors' work complements these findings by indicating "an aridization of the climatic conditions after the last peak of the LIA (1830-1870)." Although there was in a rise in temperature of around 0.7°C since the end of the Little Ice Age in various parts of Spain (Lampre, 1994; Garcia Barron, 2000), the authors conclude that precipitation differences were more significant in delineating the Little Ice Age in this part of the world than were temperature differences. From www.co2science.org/subject/e/summaries/europeiceage.htm.

In the same line, another study on river dynamics in Almeria and Catalonia during historical times, L. Schulte has shown that river terrace build-up has been sensitive to climate change, and not just human land-use ( River-response and terrace agradation in the Mediterranean Iberian Peninsula during historical times).

The study looked at the Vera basin, at the eastern margin of the Betic ranges, the driest region in Europe and the Penedes basin in Central Catalonia. Specifically, during the Little Ice Age, old terraces were swept away and new terraces were deposited along nearly all river systems in both basins. particularly because of an increase in flood magnitude and frequency 'related to the southward shift of the Northern Hemisphere westerlies during the Little Ice Age'. The study also found similar terrace building activity during the so called Early Medieval Ice Advance.

So, at least along Iberia's Mediterranean side, it rained more.

(1) Sousa, A. and Garcia-Murillo, P.  (2003.  Changes in the wetlands of Andalusia (Doñana Natural Park, SW Spain) at the end of the Little Ice Age.  Climatic Change 58: 193-217.

 

 

 

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