The Cold that Binds: Ice, Climate History, and a Hobbit Hole

Hobbit Hole with Snow-Boulder Shelter Wall, Fredericton, March 2015

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Canadian ice-breakers have been active in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this winter. It is a regional tradition; ice does not stop locals from traversing these northern waters. Rebecca Acton-Bond, of the Canadian Coast Guard, says that this is the thickest ice in the last three years, but is basically normal (ie. typical within the average of the past 30 years) for our wintertime. The recent cancellations, delays, and re-routing of ferry services, are all par for the course in a region that rubs watery shoulders with the North Atlantic.

Yet Acton-Bond’s proclamation is a clear example of the ‘shifting baseline syndrome,’ writ large in ice. Fisheries scientist, Daniel Pauly, applied this concept from architectural design to express the changing expectations of successive generations of fishermen and women. As fish stocks were depleted, the size of individual fish decreased, and in some cases, the trophic level targeted by fishing people lowered, each generation assumes that the fishery it grew up with is the baseline from which to measure and evaluate change. The same concept applies to expectations about regional ice conditions in a changing climate, which is evident in the work of Brian Hill, Alan Ruffman, and Ken Drinkwater. These researchers compiled databases and analysed changes in ice formation over time for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Scotian Shelf, and the waters east of Newfoundland, between the late 18th and mid-20th centuries. Their work demonstrates that sea ice has generally formed less frequently, and less extensively, in these waters in the 20th century, as compared to conditions in the 19th century.

The networking that led me to these databases was a dream come true, as I was in the late stages of my MA thesis, and was endeavouring to reconstruct the regional climate for the 19th century. One of the things I learned along the way was that this was like trying to harness a giant squid – the Kraken Revived! – because the region now known as Atlantic Canada is made up of highly heterogeneous microclimates. At the same time, I was able to reconstruct a “rough synthesis of the sequential, decade-by-decade, experiential story of climate change in Atlantic Canada during the 19th century”(Devor, “The Explanatory Power of Climate History,” 64). In doing so, I join Geoffrey Parker and other authors of recent climate histories in arguing that climate is a significant contributing factor to the foundations of human societies.  This is particularly true at the intersection of weather patterns and agriculture, in the form of harvests which have constituted the caloric basis for survival in an increasing range of environments worldwide over the past four centuries. Seasonality also historically structured the possibilities for transportation in the Maritimes and Newfoundland.  Thus early anecdotal evidence, port records, newspaper accounts, and meteorological records, provide insight into the intersections of climate and society in this region in the 19th century.  They also show a high degree of climatic variability over time, and overall patterns of shorter ice seasons, and slight annual warming, into the 20th century.  I am delighted to invite you to peruse the recently published article, which delivers my 214-page thesis in palatable snack size.

Until then, two further notes about the cold that binds. Variable ice surfaces have not historically stopped the region’s inhabitants from being mobile in the winter months. There are some truly remarkable accounts of the life and death voyages of Prince Edward Island’s iceboats, for example, as well as of ways to save horses from drowning, including through strangulation. (The inflating horse rises to the surface, and – if you are fortunate – you will both emerge alive.) In a time before the irksome urgency of modern wireless communications, people who traveled by iceboat not only risked their lives, but surrendered completely to the vicissitudes of ice, wind, and storms. The estimated time of arrival was always determined by the chaos of conditions in flux. The fact that there was only a single casualty on an iceboat crew – Lem Dawson – is testament to the skill of the mariners tasked with its passage.  At the same time, it does not recommend iceboats over ice-breakers and tanker hulls for safe human transport.

Finally, a nod to the fortitude of ice-travelers, as well as to the role of snow houses, and snow as insulator, in human history and contemporary life. I heard recently that J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired to write The Hobbit when a student submitted a paper including the line, “a hobbit lives in a hole.” Hobbits are apparently a fabled people of legend. Their holes can also be constructed by intrepid shovel-wielders in some Canadian climes. The experiential scholar and educator in me entreats you most of all to go out and get down with winter. (I also confess that I did not do most of the muscle-work on this one; hobbit holes are best when shared.) Only through immersion in the shifting character and materials of winter can we begin to understand the textures and challenges of life when people had far fewer physical buffers from the elements.

Read Teresa Devor’s recent article in Acadiensis, “The Explanatory Power of Climate History for the 19th-Century Maritimes and Newfoundland: A Prospectus” Acadiensis, XLIII, no. 2 (Summer/Autumn 2014): 57-78.

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Teresa Devor

Teresa Devor is a resident of New Brunswick and likes to get her boots mucky in that good Fundy clay. When she is not reading about, or being in, local ecologies, she teaches environmental history at the University of New Brunswick. She is a Phd Candidate in history studying the development of local weather ecology through the diaries of inhabitants of the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Teresa is also integrating mindfulness techniques into the classroom to enrich student's abilities to meet Einstein's stated quandary: 'You can't solve a problem with the consciousness that created it.'

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