Tuesday, 5 February 2013

How Studying Family History Drew Me into Exploring Climate Change

For the last couple of years I have been studying my family tree, and researching the events surrounding my family history. I wanted to know more than just names, dates and locations of my ancestors, but I wanted to understand the times they lived through. Since I can trace one specific ancestral line back more than 400 years, I also researched the historical settings when I found out where and when they lived.

What has been most helpful in my studies was when one or more of my ancestors were mentioned in publications - whether books, newspapers or magazine articles. The Internet has proven to be a great research tool in finding more about where these references occur. One of the most valuable gold mines of information was found in a book published in 1874 entitled Forests and Clearings: The History of Stanstead County, Province of Quebec, compiled by B. F. Hubbard.

One group of my ancestors came to Canada from the United States, and they were a part of one of the earliest settlements in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. They were members of the Marlow Settlement, and Hubbard mentions them by name, gives specific locations, times, and the events surrounding their coming to Lower Canada. The relevant years were from 1799 through to 1802. My 4th great-grandfather, Caleb White and his extended family moved from Marlow, New Hampshire to the Standstead Township of Lower Canada. They were farmers and gained land grants that the British were offering to all and any settlers willing to take up stake in the land. Before that time, the Townships was almost a complete wilderness.

The Winter That Never Was

Other than being so thrilled about finding exact references to my ancestors in the book, what was even more interesting was finding the author's commentary about the weather conditions that met my ancestors and their associates when they journeyed to and settled in Stanstead Township. The winters were extremely mild, and mild to such an extent that a wheat crop was planted in March of 1801, and an abundant crop was harvested. Even the author noted that this was unheard of for the Eastern Townships area. I was born 150 years after my ancestors arrived in Lower Canada, and I lived the first 15 years of my life in the Townships and having such warm winters was never in the equation. It was and still is, a very cold place in the winters, with an abundance of cold and snowy weather from December, and usually through to April.

How reliable was this book though? The author, Hubbard, claimed that he received these stories from the descendants of these early settlers. Perhaps there was some exaggeration being passed down. So I searched for evidence to corroborate a period of extremely mild winters in the north-east of the United States from 1799 to 1803. Since my ancestors settled in Lower Canada, in an area that was no more than 10 miles north of the Vermont border, I checked with American sources, thinking I might find some confirmation of such a warm period in that area of the world.

I did find corroboration, and from several different sources. One was from The Family Magazine, 1840-41, which is a New York publication. Under the heading, Meteorological Observations, which covered the years 1789 through to 1831, there were comments about the winters from 1799 through to 1803 being mild, and with the winter of 1801-02 being exceptionally mild. There was another source I found: The Reading Eagle, Sunday, January 27, 1907, a newspaper from Pennsylvania, that mentioned in a column about the exceptionally mild winter of 1801-02. Therefore, it would seem that the extent of the mild winter of 1801-02 covered an area of several hundred miles at least, from Pennsylvania north all the way up to Lower Canada. As to why this period was so mild, I could not find any modern reference to this weather anomaly and what factor(s) would have made it so.

The Summer That Never Was

However, it seems more consistent with human nature to recall the more negative aspects of weather than the positive ones. With this in mind, I did discover that Hubbard, in his Forests and Clearings mentioning the calamitous summer of 1816, and one that my farming ancestors had to live through in the Townships. This event is known as "The Summer That Never Was" by historians. In my reading about this year and its summer, the usual hot months of July and August were cold and snowy. Most crops were destroyed by the frost as nothing could grow. Livestock and humans starved to death in various places, and the suffering extended into the following year. This event was an extensive one, and covered most of the Northern Hemisphere. It is estimated that the global temperature dropped by more than half a degree Celsius, and this is all that it takes to cause such disastrous results.

The cause for this event was primarily the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies the year before. This volcanic eruption was the largest to have occurred on the earth for 1,300 years previous. The volcanic ash and sulphuric compounds emitted by such an eruption caused a volcanic winter on the other side of the earth within a year. This is quite extraordinary. It has also been speculated by some that earth was going through a period of low solar radiation which exacerbated the effect.

The forces of Mother Nature are incredible when exerted against the climate of the earth, and this caused me to ponder as to what else I could learn about these forces. It also made me wonder about how much impact mankind really has upon our climate. Therefore, I started to explore the history behind Climate Change that seems to be the current politically correct term for Global Warming, that has so many environmentalists occupied these days. But the findings from my research and exploration are for a future blog entry.

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