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  1. The Little Ice Age (LIA) was one of the coldest periods of the postglacial period in the Northern Hemisphere. Although there is increasing evidence that this time interval was associated with weakening of the subpolar gyre (SPG), the sequence of events that led to its weakened state has yet to be explained. Here, we show that the LIA was preceded by an exceptional intrusion of warm Atlantic water into the Nordic Seas in the late 1300s. The intrusion was a consequence of persistent atmospheric blocking over the North Atlantic, linked to unusually high solar activity. The warmer water led to the breakup of sea ice and calving of tidewater glaciers; weakening of the blocking anomaly in the late 1300s allowed the large volume of ice that had accumulated to be exported into the North Atlantic. This led to a weakening of the SPG, setting the stage for the subsequent LIA.