Records kept by marine officers like Sir George Back (1796 -1878) provide invaluable evidence of past weather patterns. McCord Museum Diary | Aurora borealis observation journal of Sir George Back | M2634

Instructor: Professor Joanna Dean

Course Description

“Wonderful to behold,” Tredway Thomas Odber Miles of Maugerville, NB, wrote in his diary in early June 1816: “The snow covers the face of the earth one inch deep at 5 o’clock morning — peas up in the garden but appear very much alarmed at the sight of snow.” More rain, and another hard frost on June 10, killing all Miles’ cucumbers, were the harbingers of a long cold summer, not only in New Brunswick but across Europe. The wet summer inspired Lord Byron to write his apocalyptic poem “Darkness,” and Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, but the concerns of Miles’ fellow farmers were more prosaic. Their crops failed and by fall one noted “The Country was never in so distressed a situation.” As the events of 1816 show, even small changes in weather and climate have a dramatic impact on human history.

This course will consider the impact of climate variability on humans in the past. We will examine a series of case studies like 1816, “the year without a summer.”  How did the “medieval warm period” facilitate settlement of Greenland by the Thule Inuit and the Norse? What was the impact of the “little ice age” on the Ottoman empire and Carolingian Europe? Can Henry Hudson’s disastrous 1611 voyage be attributed to weather patterns or human agency?  What does the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans tell us about “natural” disasters, and the inequitable distribution of environmental risks? We will look at the emergence of ideas about climate variability, anthropogenic climate change, and the Anthropocene through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and we will learn how (and how not to) read historical records for evidence of past weather patterns. Although our focus is on the past, we will ask how history can help us think about and prepare for an uncertain climate future.

Like all history courses, this course will improve students’ skills in reading, analysis, and research. Special emphasis will be placed on the critical reading and analysis of primary sources. Every week, students will write a short in-class assignment, critically assessing a primary source in light of that week’s reading, lecture and discussions.

Assessment will be based on participation (10%); document analysis (best 6 of weekly short in-class assignments: 30%); essay (40%), and take-home exam (20%).

Format: The class meets once a week for three hours of lectures, videos, discussions and writing.

Please feel free to contact Joanna Dean, at if you have any questions about the course.

The Dutch in the Little Ice Age. Hendrick Avercamp, Winterlandschap met ijsvermaak, 1608