Monthly Archives: April 2017

Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates

No, this is not a book review of Mary Mapes Dodge’s classic children’s novel about a Dutch lad who desperately wants to win an ice skating race on the frozen canals of Holland, the grand prize being a pair of silver bladed ice skates. She wrote it in 1865 but the story takes place sometime before 1850, in the winter of some otherwise unspecified year. The reader is left to surmise the actual year of the race, as well as whether or not the prize skates are intended for real use, or are merely a trophy to be hung above the mantle piece.

Continuing the reader’s surmisations, he, or she, may, again, well surmise that the skates, having silver blades, and presumably silver mounting hardware as well, would bend when put to real use on real ice, and that the blades themselves would dull up quite quickly.

An astute modern reader would also be puzzled that the famous canals of Holland actual froze enough for ice skating. They hardly ever get a thin coat of ice, let alone freeze thick enough to support large numbers of ice skaters. They froze that thick in 2012, but that year was exceptionally cold in Western Europe. They froze hard all the time back in the 1800’s, though.

They froze hard from around 1350 all the way to the late 1800’s. They did that because much of the northern hemisphere was in the Little Ice Age. It didn’t get cold enough to get the glaciers all going again, but it was a hard time for half the planet.

From around 950 to 1250 we had the Medieval Warm Period. It was warm enough that the Vikings colonized Greenland, which is not particularly green these days.

It was also wetter, especially in the desert regions of the United States. That’s when the Anasazi and the cliff dwellers flourished. The Mound Builder culture covered most of the Midwest, covering much of the Mississippi valley, and all the rivers draining into it. Their trade routes ran from the east coast to possibly the west coast and all the way down into Mexico. Artifacts, found in Mound Builder archaeological sites that originated from all over the continent.

When the Little Ice Age started around 1250, kicking in more strongly by 1350, the Mound Builder culture collapsed. The Mayan culture collapsed. The Anasazi disappeared. Bad, wet, cold winters and cold summers destroyed much of Europe’s agriculture. The Black Death plague killed hundreds of thousands in Europe. Wars started. Famines killed even more people. The face of modern Europe is much the result of the Little Ice Age.

1816 was probably the worst year of it. It was called the year without summer. There was frost in Virginia in August. Crop failure caused famine in Ireland, Wales, and the rest of Europe.

The scientific debate over what caused the Little Ice Age, reduced solar output, shifts in ocean currents, any number of other factors, rages on.

The reason for the year without summer is known. The Little Ice Age got helped out by volcanoes. 1812, 1813, and 1814 all had major volcanic eruptions, scattered around the world, blowing huge volumes of dust into the stratosphere, blocking a lot of sunlight. The dust maxed out in 1815, when Tamboura, in Indonesia, blew it’s top. Around 24 cubic miles of debris, much of it dust, went into the air. The planet’s temperature dropped by almost another degree for a couple of years.

The Little Ice Age and volcanoes, that’s how Hans Brinker won his silver skates.

First shared on the Squatcher’s Lounge Podcast:

For the reading impaired, an audio version of this quasi theory may be found here: