Did Gulf Stream disruption plunge Orkney into chaos and famine?

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

A slowing of the Gulf Stream – a massive warm-water current in the Atlantic Ocean – may have been responsible for a minor ice age that occurred between 1200 and 1850.

According to a study published on Wednesday, the Gulf Stream slowed by about ten per cent  – an alteration, the report suggests, could have affected the climate of northern Europe in past centuries.

Orkney’s temperate, but wet, climate is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream, which flows northeast across the Atlantic Ocean and brings with it the humid air that makes Orkney’s climate much milder than other areas on the same latitude.

The study of sediment cores from two sites in the Florida Straits, where the Gulf Stream originates, has revealed evidence that the Gulf Stream’s flow was weaker and this may have contributed to the 650-year “Little Ice Age”.

The Ice Age reached its peak between 1650 and 1750, bringing bitterly cold winters and a run of poor summers, and therefore harvests, to Orkney. This led to famine of Third-World proportions, made worse by plague.

A stark example dates from 1633, when the bishops of Orkney and Caithness sent a petition to the Privy council in Edinburgh.

The document described:

“Bitterly cold gales sweeping in from the sea had destroyed the corn before it ripened; people died in the open fields, and the minister going out with his servant buried them wherever he found them; people were reduced to stealing, eating dogs, or attempting to live of seaweed, and some were so desperate that they threw themselves in the sea.”

William P. L. Thomson: A New History of Orkney

It was during this period that Orkney began experiencing sightings of “Finn-men” in canoes around the islands. Click here for more.

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