Climate change is a subject I hesitate to introduce, for fear of igniting disputes between political partisans debating anthropogenic climate change--that is, change caused by human actions--and what ought to be done about it. I am a historian, so that is not what I do. It is historical climate change that I propose to introduce to the discussion, here, and abroad, among the historical scholars of the Great Plains.
Some, still, will resist the idea that climate changes, and we should not assume such resistance is rooted in religious fundamentalism. Our regional thought is heavily influenced by Walter Prescott Webb’s classic work of 1931, The Great Plains. Webb, like other scholars until recently, assumes that while weather on the plains is continental and cantankerous, climate is constant. This offers hope. If we can learn about the land and reconcile ourselves to it, then we can adapt wisely, and achieve a stable and contented life on the plains.
Well, good luck with that, because the state of nature is not stability, it is transition, and historically, that includes profound transitions in climate--change documented in geological, dendrochronological, graphic, and documentary evidence. For our understanding of historic life on the plains, the elephant on the range is what has come to be called the Little Ice Age.
As late as 1980 Scientific American referred to what I am talking about as the “so-called Little Ice Age.” Since then the conception has deepened, but not hardened: spirited debate continues as to the causes of the cooling of the Northern Hemisphere, with reference to solar activity (sunspots), volcanic activity (a cloud-shroud of volcanic dust), ocean currents, ice accumulations, and combinations thereof.
We have consensus that the Little Ice Age was long, in historical terms. Although some date its origins in the 1300s, most focus on the period from the late 1500s to mid-nineteenth century. We also have the beginnings of discussion how the Little Ice Age altered the course of history. I just finished reading Philip Blom’s masterly work along these lines, Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present.
Which leads me to bring these ideas home to the prairies. Now everything we learned in school seems a bit off. Customarily we have thought of the Civil War as a turning point--before which, settlement of the plains stalled, but after which, it punched through onto the grasslands. What if the turning point really was about 1840, when the country emerged from the Little Ice Age?
We have been taught to disparage the railroad promoters who told settlers that rain follows the plow and that tree-planting, too, altered the climate. We pity the poor homesteaders who were deceived by them. What if such talk was not unreasonable, given that as temperatures warmed, the country also became more humid?
We have made sport of American explorers like Pike and Long who likened the Great Plains to the Sahara of Africa and thereby encoded the image of a Great American Desert in the schoolbook geographies of the land. What if the observations of such travelers during the latter years of the Little Ice Age were accurate?
Go deeper. Classic, equestrian Plains Indian culture arose during the Little Ice Age. What if colder temperatures and lower humidity meant less snowfall in winter, offering possibility that horses, despite the cold, could find forage and survive?
As I approach my biblical three-score and ten, I find have more and more questions, and fewer answers. I guess I’ll hang around and see what I can figure out.