Art and climate

Winter Central England Temperature and Frost FairsFrost Fair 1814The winter of 1564-1565 was however particularly cold in Europe and was one of the few occasions when a ‘frost fair’ was set up on the frozen River Thames in London. Other freezings of the river that far down the estuary were recorded in 923, 1063, 1076, 1410 (record freezing), 1536, 1608, 1683-4, 1715-6, 1739-40, Dec 1788, 1794-1795 and 1814 (only 4 days) (various sources, including here and here*). The fair in 1814 was the last one ever, mainly due to the demolition of the old London Bridge in 1831 and the increasing embankment of the river over the Victorian period, such that the river became much narrower and faster flowing, making it more difficult for ice to build up behind the bridges. It is often said that the frost fairs are indicative of the ‘Little Ice Age’ in the UK but the dates show quite a spread over periods that were thought to be generally warm as well as cold, and so is more likely indicative of simple weather variability. A brief examination of the Central England Temperature record (available from 1659), shows that in particular the winter of 1962-1963 (and potentially, 1878-1879) was easily as cold as some of the earlier frost fair years (which otherwise line up very nicely). However, in 1963 the Thames only froze down to Teddington (significantly up river from London), clearly showing that something other than climate was responsible for the recent lack of winter mid-river frolicking….

One of the most useful applications of art to climate though, are the realistic historical depictions of mountain glaciers particularly in the Alps, but also further afield. Glaciers have much longer timescales than weather events, and so a picture of a glacier is intergrating more climatic information than a snow-clad Flemish village scene. One of the most famous sets of images, of course, is the Argentiere glacier at Chamonix which was first used by Le Roy Ladurie in the 1960’s to demonstrate the changes in the modern period. This example certainly isn’t unique, but it is quite dramatic:

Chamonix 1850 Chamonix early 1900s? Chamonix 1966 Chamonix today

(Pictures 1 and 3 are from an encyclopedia article on the Little Ice Age . More examples of old glacier art can be seen here, and there are some more descriptions of the art of climate discussed in two articles in Weather magazine, Burroughs (1981) looked at this in a little more depth, as did Peter Robinson (2005) – apparently both are worth reading).

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