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.