Catastrophic 14th-century Climate Events May Foretell Bleak Future
Sister institutes from Leipzig, Germany have just released a study that discloses important facts about major climate events that occurred during the 14th century AD.
Researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) and the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) analyzed the available scientific and historical evidence, to learn more about how the climate was evolving at that time. They revealed in a press release that the extreme cold and heavy rainfall that caused massive crop failures and starvation in central Europe in the 1310s was preceded by a severe drought and accompanying heat wave , which bedeviled the region between the years 1304 and 1307.
The time period when both climate event disasters took place is significant. It marks the transition from the relatively high-temperature Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age , when glacial advancement and consistently low temperature readings irrevocably altered the climate of the Northern Hemisphere.
What makes the revelation about the drought that impacted northern Italy, southeastern France, and east-central Europe so fascinating is how it was discovered. Its existence was not revealed by climate scientists but by GWZO historians, who set about to prove that historical research could reveal vital and detailed information about climate events by tracing their impact on society.
2000+ year graph of global temperature including the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age and what might lie ahead in the way of climate events for the current human population of planet earth. (RCraig09 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
How Historians Found The 14th-century Climate Event
Studying written records preserved from the 14 th century, they found that Central Europe had been plagued by fires and reduced crop yields , as agriculture depended on enormous amounts of water during that time. Seen together, these conditions would be consistent with the onset of long-term drought. Further GWZO research confirmed that drought conditions were experienced in much of the Middle East during the same 14th-century period, indicating the global nature of the phenomenon.
“We want to show that historical climate change can be reconstructed much better if written historical sources are incorporated alongside climate archives like tree rings or sediment cores,” explained Dr. Martin Bauch, who led the GWZO team of researchers who participated in the new study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Climate of the Past . He added, “The inclusion of humanities research clearly contributes to a better understanding of the social consequences of climate change in the past, and to drawing conclusions for the future.”
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Prolonged droughts are associated with stable weather patterns, as are extended periods of cold and rainy conditions such as those experienced throughout the 1310s.
“This is usually caused by stable high and low pressure areas that remain in one region for an unusually long time,” said Dr. Patric Seifert, a meteorologist associated with TROPOS. “In 2018, for example, very stable lows lay over the North Atlantic and southern Europe for a long time, which led to heavy precipitation there and an extreme drought in between in Central Europe.”
In reference to the 14th-century drought, TROPOS researchers believe a strong high-pressure system must have settled over central Europe in approximately 1303 and remained there until 1307, disrupting normal rainfall patterns and causing the severe heat wave that accompanied the lack of precipitation.
The frozen River Thames, London, 1677 AD: A climate event called the Little Ice Age made Central Europe a completely different place to live. (Abraham Hondius / Public domain )
How 14th-century Climate Change Relates To Today
Seifert’s reference to the drought that hit Central Europe in 2018 was by design. The working theory at TROPOS is that global climatological transitions like those experienced in the 14 th century, when the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age, caused shifts in the world’s weather patterns that produced more life-altering climatological anomalies.
“Even if it was a [natural] phase of cooling in the Middle Ages and we are now living in a phase of man-made warming, there could be parallels,” Seifert stated. “The transitional period between two climate phases could be characterized by smaller temperature differences between the latitudes and cause longer-lasting large-scale weather patterns, which could explain an increase in extreme events.”
Even in the past climate events had horrible side effects like drought, where everything dried up, crops failed, and livestock perished. This could also be our future! ( Torychemistry / Adobe Stock)
Scientists studying climate change in the 21 st century have focused much attention on the rapid warming of the Arctic region , where temperatures have risen twice as fast as in other parts of the world. Research indicates that disproportionate warming in the Arctic changes circulation patterns in the atmosphere, reducing temperature differentials between the North Pole and the equator and thereby inhibiting the normal movement of high-pressure and low-pressure systems. This could result in more rigid, stable weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, like those that have caused prolonged droughts in Central Europe, Australia, and the American West in recent years.
If the parallels between then and now are accurate, it could portend the sudden onset of severe cold and rainy conditions in some areas that are now experiencing drought. The people of Central Europe and other regions experienced just such a whiplash effect in the 14 th century, when rapid climate change helped create the social, environmental, and economic disruptions that ultimately led to the Great Famine of 1315-1321 and the even more catastrophic Black Plague (1346-1353), which resulted in the loss of one-third of the European population.
If polar bears are already sad about global warming, imagine how we will feel when climate events over the long-term change everything we have ever taken to be normal. ( Alexander / Adobe Stock)
Is This A Return To The Inferno?
The stormy and cold conditions and flooding that wrecked Europe’s agricultural economy in the 1310s have been given a curious name, the Dantean Anomaly , in honor of the Italian author, poet, and philosopher Dante Alighieri who lived during that period.
This climate event was named after the poet in part because the end of the terrible weather conditions and accompanying famine coincided with Dante’s death in 1321. But it was also during this time (in 1314) that Dante published his most famous work, Inferno, which comprised the first section of his epic poem The Divine Comedy . The Inferno contained horrific imagery that may have been inspired by the catastrophic climatological events he witnessed during this tumultuous time in European and Italian history.
In Dante’s third circle of hell, sinners were punished by being exposed to never-ending rain, hail, and snow, which left them stranded in a sea of mud from which there was no possibility of escape. This terrifying fate matched the real-world conditions that were experienced by the helpless and unfortunate farmers of Italy during that time, which strongly suggests that the Inferno can be seen at least partially as an allegory based on a real-world climate event disaster.
Italy in the early 14 th century was a literal “Hell on Earth,” and perhaps Dante believed this was righteous punishment for the sins his society and its people had committed (however, Dante may have perceived them).
In the present age, the relationship between negative climate events and our sins is clear. What is coming is a man-made disaster, and without dramatic action to reverse climate change the impact on human society may be much worse than what was experienced during the late Middle Ages, when a terrified and uncomprehending world was suddenly plunged into chaos by weather-related disasters.
Top image: Dried-up River Skirfare near Litton, North Yorkshire, England Source: Bernd Brueggemann / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde