Little Ice Age Art

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One of the most iconic images people conjure up when they think of the Netherlands of the past has to be ice skaters on canals. This painting, Ice Skating near a Village, appears in an exhibition (which closes July 5) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C of work by Dutch artist Hendrick Avercamp. In his images of the Dutch winter, Hendrick depicts an almost party atmosphere out on the ice. There are skaters, sleighs and ice fisherman, of course, but look at the details and there are lots of little stories. A gypsy woman tells fortunes in one painting. In another, vendors have set up tents on the ice to sell snacks. In Ice Skating near a Village, one woman washes clothes and another has slipped and exposed her bare bottom. A man runs across the ice with a stick to play colf (a precursor of golf), while a couple has fallen through the surface and awaits rescue.

The Dutch canals and rivers used to freeze over every year, but now they rarely do. That's because winters in the Northern Hemisphere used to be much colder. The period of 14th to the mid-19th century is known as the Little Ice Age. A new study in Environmental Research Letters contends that low solar activity was responsible for those especially nasty European winters. Harsh winters, like the one we just had, can happen when the jet stream becomes "blocked." BBC News explains:

A "blocking" occurs when the jet stream forms an "s" shape over the north-eastern Atlantic, causing the wind to fold back over itself. ...if the jet stream is "blocked", and pushed further northwards, then cold, dry winds from the east flow over Europe, resulting in a sharp fall in temperatures. ...Recent studies suggest that when solar activity is low, "blocking" events move eastwards from above north-eastern North America towards Europe, and become more stable. A prolonged "blocking" during the most recent winter was responsible for the long spell of freezing conditions that gripped Europe.

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