Tuesday 11 September 2018

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 17: Glaciers & Ice Fields

This may sound like a strange genealogical topic as most of us do not live anywhere near glaciers, nor have we ever felt threatened by them. But the subject has come up in the news often in recent years as many sources point to the retreat of ice in mountain valley as signaling doom for the planet from global warming.

The retreat of glaciers is not unique to the modern period, though. It has happened during every warm period for tens of thousands of years, just as the formation of these great ice rivers took place during the many intervening cold epochs.

Think, for a moment about what it might have been like for one of your ancestors to have watched as a mountain of ice slowly advanced on their farms and houses, crushing and grinding up everything in its path. Or how they may have felt the cold winds as the glacier fronts crept closer. Ice-cold rivers, filled with debris, may have overrun their fields, destroying any potential for harvests.

During the Little Ice Age, beginning about 1300 AD, glaciers formed in almost every mountain range in the world. The greatest advances of glaciers since the last major ice age – 25,000 years ago – occurred in the last 400 years, culminating in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. That cold age, of which glaciers were a part of, brought misery and distress to most of the old world, so the idea of their existence is also an indication of a climate that was, at best, unfavourable for habitation.

By 1600, in the Alps at least, glaciers on all sides had reached their maximum position. Many church and other records from communities in that part of the continent contain information about the devastation caused by advancing glaciers: overrunning farms and villages; and destroying infrastructure that had been in use for hundreds of years. Pastures in the upper reaches of valleys became inaccessible and mountain passes were blocked. Animals and people were injured and even killed by rock and ice falls, and floods.

In 1616, an official arrived at the Argentière glacier tongue (near Chamonix, France) and reported: “. . . The great glacier of La Rosière every now and then goes bounding and thrashing or descending; for the last five or six years . . . it has been impossible to get any crops from the places it has covered . . . Behind the village of Les Rousier, by the impetuosity of a great and horrible glacier which is above and just adjoining the few houses that remain, there have been destroyed forty-three journaux (of land) with nothing but stones and little woods of small value, and also eight houses, seven barns, and five little granges have been entirely ruined and destroyed.” (Le Roy Ladurie, 1971, p148).

On more than one occasion, priests were summoned to perform blessings and offer prayers to God to halt the progress of glaciers that threatened communities with total destruction. They did not always work.

In Scandinavia, tax records show that relief was being granted farmers from the payment of taxes as a result of their fields being destroyed by landslides caused by ice movement and outwash of debris loosened by the glaciers and sent downstream by raging streams. Here, too, the lives of people and livestock were put in jeopardy, and even taken from time to time. Property damage was often severe, to the point that people had to abandon their homes and livelihoods.

One petition for tax relief from Olden Skipreide (Norway) in 1755 stated: “. . . when the freeholder was out fishing in the fjord, a great avalanche broke out from the mountain and not only swept all the farm buildings and carrel into the lake but also his wife, children and servants, eleven people in all and all of them being killed. . .” (Grove, 1988, p.81).

During the same time period, the ice pack of the North Atlantic shifted south, almost engulfing Iceland, Greenland and parts of Scandinavia. The ice restricted passage through the northern part of the ocean and limited access to ports, cutting off supplies of colonies. The fishing industry was decimated as fish stock, particularly cod, moved out of the increasingly cold waters, forcing fishermen to travel farther as well as change their target catches.

I recommend that genealogists investigate natural phenomena in any region in which their ancestors lived in order to determine whether such factors were important in day-to-day living or survival. For genealogists, the importance of glaciers is not where they are today, for example, things that interest tourists, but where they were during the Little Ice Age when your ancestors lived, as they are direct indicators of climatic conditions. For some they were part of everyday living and survival.


Grove, Jean M. (1988). The Little Ice Age. London & New York: Routledge.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. (1967). Histoire du Climat depuis l'an mil. Flammarion, Paris. (translated by Barbara Bray as Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, Doubleday and Co., 1971).