by Judith Curry
Frozen rivers, knee-deep snows, sleet, frigid temperatures, and other winter miseries helped shape the story of George Washington’s life.
Mount Vernon, the site of George Washington’s home, has posted an interesting article Washington’s winters. Excerpts:
The Allegheny River, 1753
With tensions between the French and British over control of the Ohio Valley rapidly rising, a 21-year-old George Washington was sent on a dangerous diplomatic mission into the French-controlled wilderness beyond the Appalachians. After being politely rebuffed, Washington and his travelling companion, Christopher Gist, began the long journey back through the wilderness to Virginia.
On December 29, 1753 the two reached the Allegheny River which was filled with large chunks of floating ice. Gist and Washington built a raft of logs and then tried to maneuver the rough craft through the ice-clogged waters. Almost halfway across the river, Washington was thrown into the icy waters after their raft struck an ice pack. Nearly hypothermic, Washington pulled himself back on the raft with the aid of Gist.
Struggling against the ice and water, numb and exhausted, the two were unable to successfully reach either shore. They decided to abandon the raft and wade through the freezing water to a nearby island, where they spent a miserable night in the severe weather. By morning, the river was frozen solid, and the two battered survivors walked their way to safety.
The Delaware River, 1776
After suffering a series of stinging defeats, Washington’s Continental Army had retreated south of the Delaware River at the onset of winter in 1776. Rather than skulk off to winters quarters, Washington decided to attack an isolated garrison of Hessian troops who were stationed on the far side of the river at Trenton, New Jersey. To surprise the Hessians, Washington ordered a night time crossing on Christmas Day, 1776. The famous crossing was made infinitely worse by the large blocks of ice floating in the river and the terrible nor’easter that pelted his men with snow and sleet. The freezing temperatures and ice-choked river delayed the crossing by several hours, but Washington remained determined to proceed with the attack which led to a complete rout of the Hessian force the following morning at the Battle of Trenton. In assessing the American casualties for this stunning victory, more American men succumbed from the elements than were killed by Hessian bullets.
Valley Forge, 1777-1778
When you think of cold and miserable winters, Valley Forge easily comes to mind. It was here, over the winter of 1777 and 1778, that 11,000 of Washington’s Continental Army faced once of its most trying episodes. While rain, snow, and cold temperatures afflicted the army, the situation was made far worse by the lack of shelter, blankets, winter coats, and even shoes. It has been estimated that a third of Washington’s army at Valley Forge lacked viable footwear. Washington ordered his soldiers to build wooden huts for themselves and then search the countryside for straw to use as bedding. He hoped this would keep them warm since there were not enough blankets for everyone.
Of all the terrible winters that Washington faced during his lifetime, the frozen winter of 1779 and 1780 might have been the worst. While Valley Forge has become synonymous with winter misery during the Revolutionary War, by all historical accounts the winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey was far worse. Trapped by one of the worst winters on record, Washington’s Continentals lacked food, clothes, and sufficient shelter. To further complicate the situation, the icy roads made it almost impossible to bring regular supplies to the suffering soldiers. The situation grew so dire that several regiments mutinied and Washington despaired for the future of the Revolutionary cause.
In a March 18, 1780 letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington wrote that “The oldest people now living in this Country do not remember so hard a Winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word, the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before.”
A Final Horseback Ride, 1799
How is it that the man who survived crossing frozen rivers in the wilderness and outlasting terrible winters in the mountains, would ultimately succumb to the winter elements at his Mount Vernon home? On Thursday, December 12, 1799 George Washington mounted his horse and headed out to inspect his estate and farms as was his custom. On this day the weather turned from light snow to hail and then to rain. Returning to the mansion for a dinner, a punctual Washington refused to delay the meal and stayed in his wet clothes. The next morning brought three inches of snow and a sore throat. The sore throat led to a worsening condition that could not be allayed by his attending physicians. After a hard struggle with his inflamed throat, Washington died at between ten and eleven at night on December 14, 1799. After many a close call, winter finally won out over George Washington.
While these reflections on the climate of the late 18th century are anecdotal, this was clearly a cold period globally, as indicated by this figure from the IPCC AR5:
Tony Brown has also written several posts that include this period:
The IPCC defines ‘dangerous climate change’ as 2C warming since pre-industrial times, circa 1750. The 18th century was one of the coldest centuries in the millennia — and George Washington’s winter experiences don’t sound like much fun.
In my post The Goldilocks Principle, I raised the question of which climate do we want? I don’t think it is the climate of the 18th century. One answer is the climate that we are adapted to, which is arguably the present climate. Or perhaps it was the climate of the 1970’s, before the late 20th century warming, a period that was relatively benign in terms of extreme weather events (at least in the U.S. and Europe, this can be attributed to the cold phase of the AMO). Since much of the world’s infrastructure does not predate 1970 (outside of Europe, anyways), it doesn’t make too much sense IMO to go further back to define a reference period.
So my question is this. Why are we defining ‘dangerous climate change’ with respect to the climate of the 18th century, which was the coldest period in the last millennia, with wicked winters? Why not use a reference point of 2000 or 1970? The IPCC doesn’t provide a convincing explanation for the overall warming between 1750 and 1950; according to climate models, human causes contributed only a very small amount to the global warming to during this period (so presumably this overall warming was caused by natural climate variability). Co-opting the period between 1750 and 1950 into the AGW argument muddies the scientific and the policy waters.
It would make much more sense — from a scientific perspective, from the perspective of adaptation and engineering, and in the public communication of climate change — to refer to warming relative to a more recent reference period. Since the emissions reference periods are between 1990 and 2005, this also adds to the argument of citing a more recent reference period for defining ‘dangerous’.
The argument that human caused warming is already ‘dangerous’ — widely made by politicians, the media and some scientists — flies in the face of scientific evidence reported by the IPCC AR5 and SREX. Extreme weather events were worse earlier in the 20th century, and sea level has been rising for millennia, with recent rates of sea level rise comparable to what was observed in the middle 20th century.
So, is there any chance of redefining ‘dangerous’ climate change in a more logical and sensible way? In terms of the UNFCCC, I would say no. In the U.S., a Republican President might possibly shake this up in a more sensible way (but then again . . .)