Stradivari and the Maunder Minimum

Rummaging through Henri Grissino-Mayer?s dendrochronology web site this evening I ran across the remarkable story of Antonio Stradivari and the Maunder Minimum.

I know Grissino-Mayer through his climate research. While at the University of Arizona in the 1990s, he did the first millennial-scale tree ring climate record for New Mexico, and he’s been a wonderfully helpful source for me for years on dendro and climate issues. I was looking for a new paper of his on drought in the Pacific Northwest when I found his little piece of scientific candy about Stradivari and the Maunder Minimum.

Named after solar astronomer E.W. Maunder, the Maunder Minimum is a period from the mid-1600s to the early 1700s when sunspot activity dropped dramatically. Records are spotty from back then, but researchers who have put together analyses based on observers who were keeping records at the time suggest something odd happening on the sun.

I’ve been reading about it because it’s one of the first things that proto-paleoclimate people looked for when they began assembling the first tree ring records in the early 20th century. (They found it.)

Grissino-Mayer and colleague Lloyd Burckle took that tree ring record and applied it to the unlikely field of the history of music. People have long puzzled over the apparent mastery of the late 17th-early-18th century violin makers. Why do they sound so sweet? Grissino-Mayer and Burckle think it may be the wood. Reduced solar activity, we know, led to longer winters and cooler summers. That meant trees with slow, even growth:

During Stradivari’s latter decades, he used spruce wood that had grown mostly during the Maunder Minimum. These lowered temperatures, combined with the environmental setting (i. e., topography, elevation, and soil conditions) of the forest stands from where the spruce wood was obtained, produced unique wood properties and superior sound quality. This combination of climate and environmental properties has not occurred since Stradivari’s “Golden Period.”