Spiegel: Europe’s “Gigantic Catastrophe” Happened in 1540 (When CO2 Was 30% Less Than Today!)

Spiegel science journalist Axel Bojanowski, a geologist, writes about Europe’s largest natural catastrophe, which occurred in 1540.

No, it wasn’t a mega-volcanic eruption, a super earthquake, or a monster meteor hit. It was a severe “unprecedented” drought that fried and scorched the continent to an extent that dwarfs anything we have experienced over the past 100 years, scientists have uncovered. In the introduction Bojanowski writes:

Hardly any rain and extreme heat eleven months long. More than 300 chronicles reveal the gruesome details of a gigantic catastrophe in the year 1540. And they show: The disaster can happen again.”

I hope Spiegel publishes this article in English later on because it succinctly reminds us that there is a lot more to climate and extreme weather than a trace gas and that weather and climate have always been brutal. Voodoo science, rain-dancing and bicycle riding aren’t going to tame the weather.

Bojanowski writes that there was no warning that a catastrophe was about to grip the continent. Europe had enjoyed a spell of rainy mild weather accompanied by bumper harvests. Culture and society flourished. In December 1539 heavy rains led to flooding and people had to flee their homes. “They had no idea how precious the rain would soon be.”

In his article Bojanowski describes how suddenly in January 1540 a drought ensued and would last 11 months. Scientists say it was “far worse” than the European heat wave of 2003 according to a new paper authored by Oliver Wetter et al appearing in the journal Climate Change. The study’s abstract reminds us that extreme extremes are all too familiar in the past when CO2 were at a critically low level of 270 ppm (my emphasis).

The heat waves of 2003 in Western Europe and 2010 in Russia, commonly labelled as rare climatic anomalies outside of previous experience, are often taken as harbingers of more frequent extremes in the global warming-influenced future. However, a recent reconstruction of spring–summer temperatures for WE resulted in the likelihood of significantly higher temperatures in 1540. In order to check the plausibility of this result we investigated the severity of the 1540 drought by putting forward the argument of the known soil desiccation-temperature feedback. Based on more than 300 first-hand documentary weather report sources originating from an area of 2 to 3 million km2, we show that Europe was affected by an unprecedented 11-month-long Megadrought. The estimated number of precipitation days and precipitation amount for Central and Western Europe in 1540 is significantly lower than the 100-year minima of the instrumental measurement period for spring, summer and autumn. This result is supported by independent documentary evidence about extremely low river flows and Europe-wide wild-, forest- and settlement fires. We found that an event of this severity cannot be simulated by state-of-the-art climate models.

Spiegel writes that according to one wine grower, “It rained only 3 days in March.” Bojanowski writes that as the year progressed, the soil dried out and the air above it became oven hot as the summer sun relentlessly scorched the continent day after day. The result? Bojanowski describes a scene of multiple days over 30°C, rivers drying out, animals dying of dehydration, large-scale crop failures, forest infernos, and people collapsing like flies from heat stroke. The social fabric came apart at the seams: “Tensions erupted into persecution and executions. people barricaded themselves in homes in fear of the violence.”

The Spiegel journalist also writes that the mega-drought of 1540 shows that the hypothesis drawn up by climate scienists claiming the 2003 heat wave was exascerbated by man-made global warming is overly simplistic. He quotes Rüdiger Glaser of the University of Freiburg:

Indeed it just isn’t that simple: The fact that 1540 saw an even worse heat wave without the artificially enhanced greenhouse effect relativizes the assessment of a man-made impact on the weather of 2003.”

Near the end of the article Bojanowski writes that experts say that the same catastrophe could happen again today and that Europe is ill-prepared. Moreover, it is doubtful that droughts of such magnitude can be predicted early nowadays and the reasons for the 1540 extreme event are subject to pure speculation only.

See Spiegel photo gallery of Germany’s 2003 summer scorcher.

So, should it surprise us that the extreme heat of 1540 precluded the Little Ice Age? What evidence of solar activity do we have for the year 1540? There are lots of factors that need to be pieced together in the hopes of finding out what may have caused the catastrophic 1540 heat wave. One factor can be excluded: trace gas CO2.


24 responses to “Spiegel: Europe’s “Gigantic Catastrophe” Happened in 1540 (When CO2 Was 3024 Less Than Today!)”

  1. Michelle Stirling

    Brian Fagan’s “The Great Warmng” documents mega drought epochs in the SW United States and elsewhere in the world. People don’t read history.

  2. DirkH

    Sounds a lot like a blocking pattern with a highly excentric jetstream during a period of low Solar activity, like we saw a few years back centered over Moscow.

  3. lapogus is a great resource for historic and extreme weather events, mainly for the British Isles but also the north-west Europe. Here’s the summary for 1538-41, which confrims that 1540 was a very dry year:

    1. These four years apparently experienced drought, with 1540 & 1541 particularly dry – in both these latter years, the Thames was so low that sea water extended above London Bridge, even at ebb tide in 1541. Three successive fine / warm summers from 1538-1540: the weather in 1540 was so fine that picking of cherries commenced before the end of May and grapes were ripe in July.
    2. General warmth over Europe during the spring & summer of 1540. For England, there are several references to a hot summer, with great heat & drought; also many deaths due to the ‘Ague’. In this year (1540), there was so little water flowing in the Seine through Paris that people were able to walk across. (The next warm summer of equal worth is possibly that of 2003!)
    (also noted in usw via Holland .. ” 1540 is described in contemporary chronicles as the ‘Big Sun Year’; the lower part of the Rhine from Cologne into the Netherlands is ‘dry’ – it didn’t rain over Italy, with Rome dry for something like 9 months. Forest/city fires, with many people dying of heat stroke, heart failure etc.”)
    3. 1541: as indicated above, another drought year with rivers drying up (must have been quite extreme given that the previous year was notably dry). Cattle / other livestock dying for lack of water: dysentery killed thousands.


    1. ArndB

      The fact that England was already affected since 1538 (Spain since autumn 1539) severs as indication that the North Atlantic may have contributed substantially, which “cannot be simulated by state-of-the-art climate models” see Abstract:

      Unfortunately the 30 authors of the paper (Oliver Wetter et al appearing in the journal Climate Change.), do not even consider an oceanic aspect.

  4. Mindert Eiting

    ‘The estimated number of precipitation days and precipitation amount for Central and Western Europe in 1540 is significantly lower than the 100-year minima of the instrumental measurement period for spring, summer and autumn’.

    Note the word ‘significant’ as this may illustrate something which is wrong with this concept. Once I had to advice a researcher who had 60 measurements in an experimental design with three results significant at the five percent level. Five percent of sixty is three, but I could not explain that these ‘significant’ results were to be expected under the null hypothesis of no effect. So, in 1540 something was significantly lower than etc. Conclusion?

    1. DirkH

      Counterquestion. Imagine you throw a dice once a day and every time it shows a five or a six you get rain during the day.
      How big is the probability that you throw the dice once a day for 330 days straight and never get rain?
      (As an event gets more extreme, the odds against it go up exponentially)

      1. Mindert Eiting

        Well Dirk, that probability must be much greater than the probability of your existence.

        1. DirkH

          What I want you to understand is that the event DID come about but NOT by chance. (meaning that weather is not a freely oscillating chaotic system but the appendage of a much slower, maybe chaotic, but far more powerful system – solar weather in all likelihood).

          As to the probability of my existence: Do we want to open the “evolution” can of worms here?

  5. Ulric Lyons

    Both 1540 and 1541 were very hot. And 179 years previous in 1362, according to tonyb from climatereason, may have been the hottest in the last 2000 years.

    The key to the heliocentric configuration, Saturn is opposite Neptune and also square to Uranus, both warm signals.

  6. Kurt in Switzerland

    1517 was a horrible year for the NE Swiss wine harvest. Acres and acres of vines gave only a few litres of wine.

    Not sure whether this was due to droughts, flooding, both, or something entirely different.

    Perhaps a weather history buff knows.

  7. Ulric Lyons


    Jan 1517 A ‘great frost’ started on the 12th January (OSP). A severe winter (1516/1517) across England – Thames frozen. Booty

    The Summer of 1517 was hot and dry.

    1. Kurt in Switzerland


      Thanks. I ran a few searches.

      The St. Gallen wine harvest of 1517 was destroyed by hailstorms.

      Kurt in Switzerland

      P.S. I gave a longer response yesterday – apparently tied up in moderation. The 16th Century was characterised by both severe winters as well as warm & dry summers.

  8. Linkdump, mostly about indie publishing, SF and climate issues | Cora Buhlert

    […] in a massive catastrophe and some excellent wine. The article is only available in German, but Pierre Gosselin offers a summary at No Tricks Zone. Australian SFF writer Patty Jansen weighs in as well and points out that weather […]

  9. EDZ

    The climate is unstable. Let’s give it a kick and see what happens. What could go wrong?

    1. DirkH

      Ah, a precautionary priniple paranoid.
      Last 17 years saw CO2 levels rising faster than in Hansen’s orginial business as usual scenario and zero warming.
      So there’s your answer.

      BTW, we’re talking about a 11 month draught. That’s WEATHER. Not climate.

    2. DirkH

      …and system theoretically, a system that, after an extreme event for 11 months, returns all by itself to the long term mean, is obviously a dampened system where negative feedbacks outweigh the positive feedbacks (you won’t understand these terms but you can look them up.) – in other words, a stable system.

  10. Extreme Weather – Megadrought of 1540 much worse than 2003 | the WeatherAction Blog
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