Author’s Note: This is the second part in a series of blog posts looking at the historical big picture of modern day urban flooding and the importance of trees. Go here for part one. Read this blog post on why I’ve decided to take on this project.
Human behavior is often dictated by surrounding conditions imposed on us.
The story of the relationship between humanity, trees and flooding requires centuries of reflection to fully understand how we got to where we are today.
I’ll begin this story with a centuries old bang.
Well, two really big bangs that were major global disrupting cataclysmic volcanic eruptions.
The first one happened in 1257 on the Island of Lombok in Indonesia. By all scientific indications this eruption was the single largest volcanic eruption of the common era resulting in the 4.4 square mile Segara Anak caldera pit.
Segara Anak Caldera
The second major eruption occurred around 1452-1453 known as the “Kuwae” event in a submarine caldera in the Pacific Ocean in the Vanuatu Islands. Although there is some dispute about the exact location and timing of this eruption. Regardless of the specifics of the eruption itself, a really big and global climate shifting volcanic explosion is known to have happened sometime in the second half of the 15th century.
A series of additional smaller, but also global climate inducing volcanic eruptions again occurred in:
- 1586 at Colima Volcano in Mexico,
- 1595 in Nevado del Ruiz Volcano in Columbia, and
- 1600 at Huaynaputina Volcano in the Peruvian Andes.
These volcanic eruptions in a relatively short time frame, along with coinciding decreased period of sun activity, were likely the main contributing factors to the Little Ice Age.
The Little Ice Age is generally referred to as the period between the years 1300 to 1850 that resulted in widespread global cooling. A cooling that was so drastic that it resulted in periods of severe famine due to poor growing seasons, and wood shortages due to longer and colder winters.
Hendrick Avercamp. Winter scene on a canal. Toledo (Ohio), Toledo Museum of Art.
The period of the Little Ice Age was a very difficult time to be alive. Winters were more severe and summers were sometimes non-existent resulting in global cascading effects. There were many years where growing crops and producing food was a fruitless endeavor resulting in famines and economic turmoil. Dynasties collapsed.
For a literal and figurative “bone chilling” look at this period read “A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America” by Sam White. Much of the information within this blog post can be found Sam White’s book. I cannot recommend it enough – parts of it will scare the socks off of you. Which will make you feel even colder because you are no longer wearing socks.
I begin our story about the historical importance of trees under the backdrop of the Little Ice Age because human activity is largely driven by our environmental conditions and our surroundings. Take for example our current situation with COVID-19. External environmental forces, which are sometimes beyond our control, can make humans do extraordinary and unique things. Take for example, ass-bag pickup truck guy hoarding pallets of pleated quilted toilet paper from the grocery store.
Seriously. Don’t be this guy.
So let’s all pretend for a minute what it was like to live through the Little Ice Age.
Go ahead and close your eyes. No wait. That won’t work. You need to be able to read.
Open your eyes but imagine yourself living through long brutally cold winters year after year after year. And no present day Pittsburgh does not count, no matter how much we like to complain. These winters are much, much worse. The luxury of natural gas being piped directly into your home furnace does not exist. Imagine the only way to keep you and your family warm is by going out into the woods, cutting down a tree and chopping up firewood. Under these conditions, would people be cutting down trees and hoarding firewood? I have a hunch that pickup truck guy’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather from England might do such a thing. In fact, in the 1500s England had a severe wood shortage due to over harvesting and the cost of wood sky rocketed.
Trees were there for the taking, so people took them. They were essential to survival much like pleated toilet paper is today to pickup truck guy.
During the Little Ice Age, cutting down and taking trees became an engrained social behavior of several generations. It just so happened that this behavior coincided with the European discovery and colonization of North America. A land full of abundant tree resources to what the initial settlers at the time described as “infinite” and “in-exhaustible.” Trees upon trees upon trees, for miles and miles and miles. Massive centuries old trees stretching the entire North American Atlantic coastline all the way westward to the Mississippi River and into the great plains.
A seemingly endless supply of new trees were there for the continued taking, and over the next three centuries the newly arrived European settlers would be sure to take them. Take them all.