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Jean-Michel Carozza, Benoît Devillers, Nick Marriner and Christophe Morhange
p. 11-13
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Introduction [fr]

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1 - The Little Ice Age : an ambiguous term

1The term petit âge de glace (PAG) is the literal translation of the English ‘Little Ice Age’ (LIA). During the past 20 years, the Little Ice Age has emerged as a topic of major research focus spanning such fields as paleoecology, environmental history and climate history (Fig. 1). Despite its widespread usage, no formal definition exists and the term is characterized by a number of ambiguities.

2Firstly, the Little Ice Age (LIA) was initially used to describe the late 19th century AD and the glacial floods that impacted the main mountain ranges of both Europe and North America (MATTHEWS and BRIFFA, 2005; WOODWORD, 2014). It was only later that the term was extended to encompass a longer period corresponding to a cold phase in Europe and North America, expressed, for instance, by the expansion of glaciers (LAMBS, 1965; LEROY‑LADURIE, 1967). Although the term was initially used to describe a process, it has gradually acquired a chronological meaning, which has posed some difficulties as outlined in the article by HUGHES (this volume). Today, the LIA is used to denote the cold phase that precedes the onset of global warming beginning in the very late 19th century. Nonetheless, this shift in meaning to a chronological period has never been formalized and there is no real consensus on the precise time window covered. Early work by LAMBS (1965) on the Atlantic emphasized the strong and sharp contrast of this episode with the previous warm phase (referred to as the Medieval Climate Anomaly, MCA, XOPLAKI et al., 2011). The exact onset of the LIA remains heavily dependent on the indicators used. For instance, it begins around 1250 AD if we consider the growth of ice in the Atlantic, towards 1300‑1310 AD if one takes into consideration severe winters in Europe (LEROY-LADURIE, 1967, 2004), or even in 1550 AD for the global expansion of glaciers (BRADLEY and JONES, 1995; HUDDART and STOTT, 2010).

3The specificities of the LIA around the Mediterranean in terms of processes, events and timing are still debated. Nonetheless, they are crucial for our understanding of climate dynamics and its potential effects on Mediterranean societies.

2 - Research on the LIA in the Mediterranean can be articulated around four broad questions:

4– What are the chronological boundaries for the beginning and the end of the LIA in the Mediterranean? Are they identical to those proposed for Atlantic Europe? Recently, the first changes in sedimentary dynamics in the western Mediterranean were reported to have occurred around 1260-1270 AD (CAROZZA et al., 2011; SIMMONEAU et al., 2012; VELLA et al., this volume), fitting with earlier findings by BROCHIER (1983) around the Gulf of Lion. At a more general level, many authors point out that, during the transition phase between the MCA and the LIA, more frequent extreme events occurred (TROUET et al., 2009; MORELLÓN et al., 2012; MORENO et al., 2012; TROUET et al., 2012). From a hydro-sedimentary perspective, these events could have been accentuated by a ‘destabilization’ of the landscape, recorded by palynological records and related to a fall in human impacts as a result of the great plagues (RULL et al., 2011; EJARQUE et al., 2009).

5Are the expressions of the LIA similar across the Mediterranean or should we analyze regional scales? For instance, around the Gulf of Lion, recent studies have highlighted a trend of high runoff and cold winters whereas, by contrast, data from the Iberian peninsula have shown that the low temperatures were associated with drought. The same is true for the Eastern Mediterranean, where the work of SCHILMAN et al. (2001) and ROBERTS et al. (2012) has shown that the LIA was cold but dry. The strong influence of La Niña-NAO+ in the Western Mediterranean seems less pronounced in the Eastern Mediterranean (GÖKTÜRK, 2011). This finding raises the question of the criteria that need to be used to define the LIA across the Mediterranean. As for Northern Europe, discussion is clearly needed on the types of indicators that might be used to frame this change (records of temperature and precipitation, and the rhythms and intensities of change; NESJE DAHL, 2003). Furthermore, increased rainfall raises the question of the environmental impacts upon human occupation patterns during the LIA in the Eastern Mediterranean (GROVE, 1988; DEVILLERS, 2005; DEVILLERS and LECUYER, 2008).

6Can the internal secular rhythmicity of the LIA, as it was defined in Central Europe, be applied to the Mediterranean, in particular in relation to its earliest phase (the end of the 13th century AD) and a pronounced cold phase beginning in the mid-16th century? Historical work has shown that around the Western Mediterranean, the LIA was characterized by alternating periods of high runoff and severe droughts. Thus, during the second half of the 17th century and early 18th century, much of the Mediterranean’s western basin seems to be characterized by a tendency towards aridity followed by a renewed wet and cold phase from 1740-1750 AD that is well recorded in the Pyrenees (MÉTAILIÉ, 1987), in Languedoc, in the lower Rhône valley (PICHARD and ROUCAUTE, 2009) and the Alps (EDOUARD et al., 2009). Similarly, if the 19th century may appear to be the peak of the LIA, its detailed chronology shows a contrast between a very dry phase centred around 1800-1820 AD, recorded in Languedoc (GARNIER, 2009) and in the Cevennes (ASTRADE et al., 2011). Research in coastal areas of southern France also suggests that the LIA was a period of increased storminess. All of these elements suggest that the LIA is complex and cannot be described simply as a period of cold and wet climate.

7Finally, the question of the effects of climate-related changes associated with the LIA upon societies should be thought of within the context of Mediterranean populations, where the management of water resources is a recurrent problem. Caution must be exercised when looking at this issue because chronological similarities are not necessarily coincident with the same causal mechanism. The climate does not make history, but it can contribute to social dynamics and innovation by promoting the adoption of new practices, rules or technics and technologies (BUTZER, 2012; CAROZZA and PUIG, 2011). Truly multidisciplinary approaches are therefore required to effectively study the LIA. Whilst the exacerbation of hydrological changes and sediment crises probably had a negative impact in mountainous and urban areas, the same is not necessarily true for low-lying agricultural plains where ‘new land’ was gained on the sea (e.g. rapid deltaic progradation) and rivers. The changing balance of power between urban areas and the countryside during the modern period could therefore lead to an erroneously negative reading of the LIA. It is important to place these spaces at the centre of the debate on the impacts of this environmental crisis (CAROZZA, 2012).

8The general pattern that emerges from recent syntheses (LUTERBACHER et al., 2012; CAMUFFO et al., 2010) is that, at the regional scale, it is still difficult to get a precise idea of the spatial and temporal variability of climate change during the LIA. One of the reasons for this relates to the spatial disparities in documentary sources. For example, there is a clear difference between data from the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. Historical approaches that were developed in the Western Mediterranean have more recently been expanded to Byzantine and Ottoman sources. Finally, geomorphological studies looking at sedimentation rates were initially developed in the Central Mediterranean, with the pioneering work of VITA-FINZI (1969), before being extended to the Western and Eastern Mediterranean.

9From these syntheses, a fragmented picture of the Mediterranean during the LIA emerges, with a notable absence of data from its southern seaboard. Dendrochronological data are, for example, restricted to the Atlas mountains of Morocco. There are no speleothem records from the North African seaboard. Work on fluvial sediment crises is restricted exclusively to Tunisia (ZIELHOFER and FAUST, 2008; MATHIEU et al., 2004). In other work, BKHAIRI and KARRAY (2008) have also looked at alluvial terraces in Tunisia. With regards to historical sources, the work is limited to just a few Arabic (VOGT et al., 2011; ELLENBLUM, 2012) or Arabo-Andalusian (GHOUIRGATE, 2011) sources. This probably constitutes one of the richest avenues for future research on the LIA.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1
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Bibliographical reference

Jean-Michel Carozza, Benoît Devillers, Nick Marriner and Christophe Morhange, ForewordMéditerranée, 122 | 2014, 11-13.

Electronic reference

Jean-Michel Carozza, Benoît Devillers, Nick Marriner and Christophe Morhange, ForewordMéditerranée [Online], 122 | 2014, Online since 19 June 2016, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Jean-Michel Carozza

Lecturer, GEODE, Cnrs, Mirail’s University, Toulouse, France,

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Benoît Devillers

Lecturer in Géography physique, Montpellier 3 University, UMR 5140,

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Nick Marriner

Researcher, CNRS, Chrono-environnement Laboratory, UMR 6249, University of Franche-Comté, Besançon France,

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Christophe Morhange

Professor of Geography, Aix-Marseille Université, CEREGE UMR 7330,

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