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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/ 8/2010

The six great early American climate myths

By Don Lipman

Part I

* Very warm today, then turning cooler: Full Forecast | NatCast *

When Richard Mather, grandfather of Cotton Mather, the fiery New England preacher, arrived in Plymouth Bay Colony in a hurricane in August 1635 he, as well as fellow passengers aboard the James were certainly surprised at the way Mother Nature welcomed them. Not that a hurricane was so unusual, because they had vaguely heard of them. They just didn't realize hurricanes could travel so far north.

But the real shocker would be the overall severity of the New England weather that awaited them, especially during the era now known as the "Little Ice Age," roughly 1450-1850.

The Equal Latitude Myth

During the colonial period, it was still widely believed that weather across the globe was always similar at the same latitude, the so-called Equal Latitude Theory, or myth. Prospective immigrants didn't understand that continents, mountains, oceans, etc. could have a profound effect on the weather.

Keep reading for more on early American climate myths...

So when immigrants from the British Isles--situated between 50°N and 60°N--reached New England shores, which are considerably south of Old England, they naturally expected a milder climate than that which they left behind. Instead, they were totally shocked by and unprepared for not only the bitter winters and deep snows, but the hotter summers as well.

It was the same with other European settlers; few anticipated the (albeit modified) continental climate extremes of the colonies. As a result, initial crops sometimes foundered until new farming methods could be established. The silk worm industry, for example, which was thought to be a lucrative endeavor as it was in France and Spain, had a rough time initially in Virginia due to the harsh weather. (1)

And so it was that settlers from most of the western European countries and elsewhere reached America with a badly mistaken idea of what our weather patterns were really like.

The Equal Latitude Myth was one of the six Early American Climate myths that the late David Ludlum, founder and long-time director/editor of Weatherwise magazine, summarized as "American Climythology." Ludlum, one of America's foremost weather historians, died in 1997. A summary of his other major publications follows this article. (For me, the most fascinating ones were Early American Winters, 1604-1820 and Early American Winters II, 1821-1870.)

The Ohio Country Myth

Thomas Jefferson believed that the land which we now call Ohio had a milder climate
than the mid-Atlantic because of the types of plant species which grow there versus the types that grow here--the so-called Ohio Country Myth. Jefferson, an amateur meteorologist who even kept a weather record while president, was normally quite astute about the weather; he was mistaken on this score, however. It's unclear why he thought that the particular species prevalent in Ohio were more indicative of a milder climate.

The Great Plains Desert Myth

In his discussion of The Great Plains Desert Myth, Ludlum pointed out that following the Civil War, Congress was opposed to settling the Plains because they were considered too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, and altogether too dry (roughly 10-20 inches of precipitation per year). Basically, Congress thought the Plains were incapable of sustaining life for European-American settlers as they knew it. "Leave it to the Native Americans," Congress said, although not in those words.

However, with the strong push by Horace Greeley and others who saw great value in developing the Plains, the Homestead Act was passed in 1862. This meant that for settlers who would, and could, meet the stringent requirements, the land was deeded to them free and clear. Today, of course, with advanced land management and irrigation, the Great Plains States are the breadbasket of the country, despite the severity of the climate.

But to illustrate the hardships that were endured, descendants of Plains settlers might still remember a saying that's been passed on, in one form or another, through the generations: "If you don't get burnt [sic] to death by the sun and the drought, or froze [sic] to death by the blizzards and the hail, then you'll get eaten to death by the locusts, the land speculators, and the politicians."

In a coming article, I'll discuss Ludlum's other three Early American Climate Myths. Know what any of them are?

(1) Colonial History of Jamestown, VA, American Public University

David Ludlum's main publications:
• Early American Winters, 1604-1820
• Early American Winters II, 1821-1870
• Early American Hurricanes, 1492-1870
• Early American Tornadoes, 1586-1870
• American Weather Book
• Weather Record Book
• The Weather Factor
• National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather

By Don Lipman  | September 8, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education, Lipman  
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Not sure if there is a myth involved, but one climate surprise had to be the mild west coast winters in western Oregon and Washington. Another surprise perhaps is the Chinook that can warm Montana from ridiculously cold to quite warm in a minute or two.

Posted by: eric654 | September 8, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

eric654: This wasn't one of Ludlum's myths but nevertheless is a good point. Some at the time may have known what the characteristics were like of a northern hemisphere west coast climate but, generally, people expected similar conditions across the globe at the same latitude.

Don, Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | September 8, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

The problem with the Great Plains Myth is that settlers from England had no experience with the "steppe" climate.

The Upper Midwest was largely settled by Scandinavian and Finnish immigrants with cold-winter experience and by Germanic and Slavic immigrants with experience from Eastern Europe and Russia. The Great Plains is more like the steppes of continental Russia. The chernozem [black earth] climate of the Ukraine is paralleled by the Red River of the North which contains the bed of glacial Lake Agassiz; both are among the finest wheat-growing lands in the world. This area extends from the Dakotas into the Prairie Provinces of Canada.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | September 8, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Just back from Iceland a few weeks ago. Before the "little Ice Age" the settlers there grew all kinds of grain, from 900 to 1400AD. Then they got a big surprise when the climate went cold. Turned the country upside down. They could hardly grow anything - lichens maybe. Now they have plenty of rye, expanding barley, talking about wheat, who knows, corn could be next.

When the Icelanders did emigrate to North America in the 1800's they were shocked at the harshness of the Upper Midwest winters, but of course, the N. America summers allowed a better growing season.

Posted by: dhb2 | September 8, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

The Great Plains have a variety of climates. Bombo47 is correct about the Red River Valley of the North and its fertility. However, much the Dakotas and Nebraska is really too dry to grow anything reliably. There is also nobody to farm it as children move to the cities. As a result, some cropland in the Dakotas and Nebraska is going back to prairie.

Posted by: kperl | September 8, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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