If you’re the kind of person who spends a lot of time exploring the Sketchy Science archive, you may have noticed a glaring omission in the topics of articles we have covered. Although we talk about issues of sustainability every now and then (geothermal, solar power, etc.) we have never written an article explicitly about human caused climate change. That is largely because every other science writer around has pretty much beaten that topic to death. The science is obvious to the point of being uninteresting. Everyone knows we are causing the planet to warm and should do something about it. Our job at Sketchy Science is to share weird and cool stuff you might never have heard of, not to tell you what you already know. With that in mind, did you know that some scientists believe that before we got started warming the planet, we may have accidentally dropped it into a mini ice age?
Before we get into the meat of the theory, we should add a disclaimer. This is just a hypothesis. It is supported by evidence and it makes intuitive sense, but the ideas are relatively new and are not widely agreed upon. However, it is a hypothesis that is just too cool to ignore (no pun intended).
You may have already heard of the Little Ice Age but in case you haven’t, it was a period from around the year 1500 to the mid 1800’s where the Earth gave humanity a bit of the cold shoulder. Following the blissfully balmy medieval warming period, the Little Ice Age was an increasingly frustrating time to be alive. Glaciers were growing, crops were freezing, and many people suffered through long, harsh winters following by short, cool summers. In a world where your options for indoor heat ranged from wood burning stoves to coal ovens, the Little Ice Age was a bummer.
So how could the no-quite discoverer of the Americas cause the global climate to cool? Well, when he moored his ship in the Caribbean way back in 1492, Columbus ushered in a period of unprecedented ecological change all over the planet. One of the most impactful and most well-known consequences of Columbus’ voyages to the new world was the introduction of European diseases like small pox, measles and a host of other deadly infections to Native American populations with no resistance to them. The outcome, as you probably know, was that within a few centuries over 95% of the indigenous people in North America were dead.