A Christmas Carol: Dickens and the Little Ice Age

Scrooge's third visitor,  by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843. First edition. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Scrooge’s third visitor, by John Leech, 1843. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812. He had only 31, when began to write A Christmas Carol in September 1843. The book was published on 19 December 1843. The novella tells the story of  Ebenezer Scrooge, a bitter old man who finds salvation through the visits of the three Ghosts of Christmas (Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come). Dickens divided the story in five “staves”, where he describes the brutal winter and the horrors of social inequality. Scrooge is considered to be the very embodiment of winter: “No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.”

Dickens describe the severe weather in many parts of the book: “…and they stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music in scraping the snow from the pavement in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses, whence it was mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snow-storms.

A Frost Fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs by Abraham Danielsz Hondius (Abraham de Hondt), circa 1684 (From Wikimedia Commons)

Dickens grew up during the coldest years of the Little Ice Age, between 1805 to 1820. Many of the Christmas stories that are popular today were written during that period and winter landscapes were commonly depicted by artists like Pieter Bruegel, Hendrick Avercamp,  and Abraham Hondius.

The Little Ice Age (LIA) was a period that extends from the early 14th century through the mid-19th century, during which the Northern Hemisphere suffered from severe and prolonged cold winters. The period between 1600 and 1800 marks the height of the Little Ice Age.

Volcanoes are a possible cause for the LIA. The Tambora eruption on April 10, 1815, released two million tons of debris and  sulphur components into the atmosphere.  The following year was known as “the year without summer”. Charles Lyell describes the eruption in his Principles of Geology: “Great tracts of land were covered by lava, several streams of which, issuing from the crater of the Tomboro Mountain, reached the sea. So heavy was the fall of ashes, that they broke into the Resident’s house at Bima, forty miles east of the volcano, and rendered it, as well as many other dwellings… The darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night.”

Reconstructed depth of the Little Ice Age varies between different studies  (From Wikimedia Commons)

Reconstructed depth of the Little Ice Age varies between different studies (From Wikimedia Commons)

Dickens revitalized the traditions of Christmas and to Victorian England, Dickens was Christmas. But he also contributed to the popularity of geology with the creation of ideas and images for public consumption, such as he did in Bleak House, with the description of the streets of London where ancient lizards roamed, and volcanoes and quakes shocked the earth.

 

References:

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Chapman & Hall, 1843.

BOER, de J.Z. & SANDERS, D.T. (2002): Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions. Princeton University Press: 295

Brian M. Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 (2001), Basic Books.

Buckland, Adelene , ‘“The Poetry of Science”: Charles Dickens, Geology and Visual and Material Culture in Victorian London’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 35 (2007), 679–94 (p. 680).

 

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Early studies of South American Fossils.

 

Megatherium americanum, MACN.

Megatherium americanum on display at the MACN.

The first notices of South American fossils were reported by early Spanish explorers. These fossils were interpreted as the remains of an ancestral race of giant humans erased from the face of the Earth by a divine intervention. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Fray Reginaldo de Lizarraga (1540-1609), referred in his writings to those “graves of giants” found in Córdoba, Argentina. In 1760, the English Jesuit Thomas Falkner, discovered the first remains of a glyptodon. He wrote: “I myself found the shell of an animal, composed of little hexagonal bones, each bone an inch in diameter at least; and the shell was near three yards over. It seemed in all respects, except it’s size, to be the upper part of the shell of the armadillo; which, in these times, is not above a span in breadth.” (1774, p. 54-55).  However, the first formal description of a gliptodonte was performed in 1838, by English naturalist Sir Richard Owen.

In 1766, by order of Juan de Lezica y Torrezuri (1709-1783), Mayor of Buenos Aires, fossil remains recovered in Arrecifes, were sent to Spain. Previously to the trip, three surgeons, Matías Grimau, Juan Parán and Ángel Casteli, analyzed the bones to determine if these were humans. In Spain, scholars of the Real Academia de la Historia, stated that the remains were not human, conjecturing that those bones resembled those of a quadruped, and perhaps an Elephant. The scholars were right, the remains in question belonged to mastodons, extinct relatives of elephants.

Portrait of  Manuel Torres by Francisco Fortuny.

Portrait of Manuel Torres by Francisco Fortuny.

In 1787, Fray Manuel de Torres found near the banks of the Lujan River,  the skeletal remains of a gigantic mammal. He carefully documented this extraordinary finding. On April 29, 1787, he sent a letter to the Viceroy Francisco Nicolás Cristóbal del Campo, Marqués de Loreto, with details of his work. In 1789, the specimen was sent to the Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid where was illustrated by Juan Bautista Brú de Ramón (1740-1799). This is the real starting point of paleontological studies in the Rio de la Plata.

In 1795, Philippe-Rose Roume (1724-1804), a French officer, sent Bru’s illustrations to the Institut de France, with a little description of the skeleton. A year later, George Cuvier (1769-1832) published the first scientific work on a South American fossil. He assigned the fossil the scientific name Megatherium americanum. Cuvier also studied fossils from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, among which he recognized three morphotypes, designated informally as “mastodonte a dents étroites”, “mastodonte Cordillierès” and “mastodonte humboldien”. Cuvier (1823) later formally named them Mastodon angustidens, Mastodon andium and Mastodon humboldti, respectively (Fernicola et al, 2009).

References:

PASQUALI, Ricardo C  y  TONNI, Eduardo P. Los hallazgos de mamíferos fósiles durante el período colonial en el actual territorio de la Argentina. Ser. correl. geol.[online]. 2008, n.24 [citado  2014-12-08], pp. 35-43 . Disponible en: . ISSN 1666-9479.

Fernicola, J. C., Vizcaino, F, and de Iuliis, G. (2009), ‘The Fossil Mammals collected by Charles Darwin in South America during his travels on board the HMS Beagle’, Revista de la Asociatión Geológica Argentina. 64 (1), 147-59.

Fariña, Richard A.; Vizcaíno, Sergio F.; De Iuliis, Gerry (2013). Megafauna. Giant Beasts of Pleistocene South America. Indiana University Press.

The Anthropocene defaunation process.

 

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

In 2000,  Paul Crutzen proposed use the term Anthropocene to designate the last two hundred years of human history and to mark the end of the current Holocene geological epoch. Although there is no agreement on when the Anthropocene started, it has been defined, primarily, by significant and measurable increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from ice cores and other geologic features including synthetic organic compounds, radionuclides and ocean acidification.

Another marker for the Anthropocene is the current biodiversity crisis. The term defaunation was created to designate the declining of top predators and herbivores triggered by human activity, that results in a lack of agents that control the components of the ecosystems vegetation.

Global population declines in mammals and birds represented in numbers of individuals per 10,000 km2 for mammals and birds (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

Global population declines in mammals and birds (From Dirzo et al., 2014).

Since the industrial revolution, the wave of animal and plant extinctions that began with the late Quaternary has accelerated. Calculations suggest that the current rates of extinction are 100–1000 times above normal, or background levels. We are in the midst of  the so called “Sixth Mass Extinction”.

Although anthropogenic climate change is playing a growing role, the primary drivers of modern extinctions seem to be habitat loss, human predation, and introduced species (Briggs, 2011). The same drivers that contributed to ancient megafaunal and island extinctions.

SConsequences of defaunation (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

The consequences of defaunation (From Dirzo et al., 2014)

 

One of the most famous and well-documented extinctions come from Madagascar. Pygmy hippos, giant tortoises, and large lemurs went extinct due to human hunting or habitat disturbance.  A very interesting study by Burney et al. (2003) tracked the decline of coprophilous Sporormiella fungus spores in sediments due to reduced megafaunal densities after the human arrival on the island. Another well documented case is the Moa extinction in New Zealand. Recent radiocarbon dating and population modeling suggests that their disappearance occurred within 100 years of first human arrival. A large number of  land birds across Oceania suffered a similar fate beginning about 3500 years ago.

Some biologist predict that the sixth extinction  may result in a 50% loss of the plants and animals on our planet by AD 2100, which would cause not only the collapse of ecosystems but also the loss of food economies, and medicinal resources.

References:

Richard N. Holdaway, Morten E. Allentoft, Christopher Jacomb, Charlotte L. Oskam, Nancy R. Beavan, Michael Bunce. An extremely low-density human population exterminated New Zealand moa. Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 5436 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6436

Rodolfo Dirzo et al., Defaunation in the Anthropocene, Science 345, 401 (2014); DOI: 10.1126/science.1251817

Braje, T.J., Erlandson, J.M., Human acceleration of animal and plant extinctions: A Late Pleistocene, Holocene, and Anthropocene continuum. Anthropocene (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2013.08.003