The Little Ice Age was a period of unusually cold temperatures in many parts of the world that lasted from about the year 1350 until 1900 C.E. There were unusually harsh winters, and glaciers grew larger in many areas. Scientists have long wondered what caused the Little Ice Age. Several possible causes have been proposed.
First, the cooling may have been caused by disruption of ocean currents. Before the Little Ice Age, there was a period of unusually warm weather during which glaciers melted. These melted glaciers sent a large amount of cold freshwater into the Gulf Stream, a large ocean current that strongly affects Earth's climate. Some scientists believe that this freshwater was enough to temporarily disrupt the Gulf Stream current. Such a disruption could have caused the Little Ice Age.
Second, volcanic eruptions could have caused the Little Ice Age. When volcanoes erupt, they send dark clouds of dust and sulfur gas into the atmosphere. These clouds, which can spread over great areas, block some sunlight from reaching Earth's surface. This can decrease the global temperatures. Scientists know of several volcanic eruptions that took place during the Little Ice Age.
Third, substantial decreases in human populations may have contributed indirectly to the cooling of the climate. For a variety of reasons (disease, warfare, social disruption), the human population just before the Little Ice Age and during the early part of it was lower than it had been in a long time. Forest trees started growing on fields that were no longer used for agriculture. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, they decrease the greenhouse effect that keeps Earth warm. With more forest trees and less carbon dioxide, Earth became cooler.