A drought perhaps worse than this

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The drought that Europe has been experiencing in recent months could be the worst in the last five hundred years. To make a definitive estimate we will have to wait for the end, but according to Andrea Toretiresearcher of the Joint Research Center of the European Commission who deals with the analysis ofEuropean drought observatory, it can already be said that it will surpass that of 2018, which already had few precedents in past centuries. For this reason, there are those who have compared it to a period of water scarcity and fires for Europe much further back in time but exceptional: the drought of 1540.

For that year, historians use the expression “mega-dryness”, tells an article by Politic: After a decade of terrible weather conditions, for nearly a year there was a severe shortage of water in western and central Europe, from France to Poland, with temperatures above 40 ° C.

Some of the continent’s largest rivers such as the Rhine, Seine and Elbe were crossed on foot as river transport was slowed down or impeded (like today) and the mills could not work (like today the hydroelectric plants). Some of the livestock died due to the lack of water available, the grapes dried up before the harvest, dysentery spread due to the use of stagnant water. The prices of many products, from flour to milk, increased.

Many forests burned and so some cities, at that time made mostly of wood: it was a period of religious tension and it happened that people persecuted as witches were accused of those fires.

For example, it was the case of Heinrich Diek, a resident of Einbeck, Germany, who was arrested and killed because he was held responsible for a fire in which about 500 people are thought to have died: under torture he spoke of a conspiracy against Protestants led by the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg Henry V, then leader of the German Catholic princes, which is why his opponents asked the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to intervene, and both the pope and Martin Luther were called into question.

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The chronicles of the time describe apocalyptic scenes, for example when they say that the Sun looked like a white disk, or that it was surrounded by a red halo, probably effects due to the smoke of the fires, but they also report various concrete details that allow us to understand what type the Europeans of the sixteenth century had to face adversity.

In Besançon, France, locals holed up in cellars in the middle of the morning to avoid the heat, and miners were released from work. In Ulm, Germany, the religious had to pray for rain. In the Lake Constance area in Switzerland, the price of water exceeded that of wine. In Parma the water was brought by mules, as is nowadays used by tankers to serve some inhabited centers particularly affected by drought.

The Swiss historian Christian Pfister, professor emeritus of the University of Bern and author of a climatic history of Europe over the past thousand years written together with climatologist Heinz Wanner. Pfister believes that we should better remember the weather disasters of the past to prepare for possible future events and that disastrous years like 1540 could happen again even in the absence of the contribution of the climate change caused by human activities.

Also because today in a certain sense we are more exposed to drought: even if we have resources to better defend ourselves from the reduction of harvests in a certain geographical area, we need much greater quantities of water both for crops and for other uses, including the operation of hydroelectric plants and the cooling of nuclear ones and gas.

And if in the sixteenth century the lack of rainfall could be compensated by the greater melting of alpine glaciers, today and even more so in the coming decades we cannot rely on the same: due to global warming the surface of the glaciers is shrinking and it is estimated that many will disappear by 2050.

We do not know why 1540 was such a dry year, meteorological phenomena are difficult to reconstruct so far back in time. That year was then followed by others even more difficult, because towards the end of the century there were cold and wet winters which reduced agricultural production much more.

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