The European Climate Megadrought – Which Happened 482 Years Ago

Spread the love

Essay by Eric Worrall

h/t JoNovaPatty Janson; A brutal European megadrought in 1540, during the little ice age, brings context to attempts to link the current European heatwave to global warming.

Europe’s biggest natural disaster

mirror online,by Axel Bojanowski
Updated on 07/15/2014

Eleven months of hardly any rain and extreme heat: More than 300 chronicles from all over Europe reveal the gruesome details of a gigantic catastrophe in 1540. And they show that the disaster can happen again.

The year 1539 ended with a stormy, mild westerly wind. It rained a lot in December, people fled to their homes. Little did they know how valuable the precipitation was soon to become.

Never-before-seen drought

In January 1540, a dry phase began, the likes of which Central Europe has not experienced in living memory, according to scientists who have been able to collect a huge archive of weather data. For eleven months there was hardly any precipitation, the researchers speak of a “mega drought”.

The year broke all records: Contrary to previous estimates by climate researchers, the summer of 2003 is not the hottest known – 1540 exceeded it by far, writes the international research group led by Oliver Wetter from the University of Bern in the journal “Climate Change”.

On foot through the Rhine

In the summer of 1540, people were increasingly desperate to find drinking water. Even a meter and a half under some riverbeds in Switzerland, “not a drop” was found, as the chronicler Hans Salat noted. Wells and springs that had never run dry before lay fallow. The others were strictly guarded and only served when the bell rang. Contaminated water caused thousands to die from dysentery, an inflammation of the colon.

The level of Lake Constance dropped so low that the island of Lindau was connected to the mainland in the summer of 1540, which otherwise only happens in winter at most, when the precipitation remains as snow in the mountains and flows slowly into the lake. “The lake was so small,” chroniclers wondered.

Read more (German):

The paper from Oliver Wetter;

An underestimated record breaking event – why summer 1540 was likely warmer than 2003

O. Wetter 1,2 and C. Pfister1 1 Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland 2 Institute of History, Section of Economic, Social and Environmental History (WSU), University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland Correspondence to: O. Wetter ( and C. Pfister (

Received: 13 June 2012 – Published in Clim.
Past Discuss.: 20 July 2012
Revised: 11 December 2012 – Accepted: 12 December 2012 – Published: 14 January 2013

Abstract. The heat of summer 2003 in Western and Central Europe was claimed to be unprecedented since the Middle Ages on the basis of grape harvest data (GHD) and late wood maximum density (MXD) data from trees in the Alps. This paper shows that the authors of these studies overlooked the fact that the heat and drought in Switzerland in 1540 likely exceeded the amplitude of the previous hottest summer of 2003, because the persistent temperature and precipitation anomaly in that year, described in an abundant and coherent body of documentary evidence, severely affected the reliability of GHD and tree-rings as proxy-indicators for temperature estimates. Spring–summer (AMJJ) temperature anomalies of 4.7 ◦C to 6.8 ◦C being significantly higher than in 2003 were assessed for 1540 from a new long Swiss GHD series (1444 to 2011). During the climax of the heat wave in early August the grapes desiccated on the vine, which caused many vine-growers to interrupt or postpone the harvest despite full grape maturity until after the next spell of rain. Likewise, the leaves of many trees withered and fell to the ground under extreme drought stress as would usually be expected in late autumn. It remains to be determined by further research whether and how far this result obtained from local analyses can be spatially extrapolated. Based on the temperature estimates for Switzerland it is assumed from a great number of coherent qualitative documentary evidence about the outstanding heat drought in 1540 that AMJJ temperatures were likely more extreme in neighbouring regions of Western and Central Europe than in 2003. Considering the significance of soil moisture deficits for record breaking heat waves, these results still need to be validated with estimated seasonal precipitation. It is concluded that biological proxy data may not properly reveal record breaking heat and drought events. Such assessments thus need to be complemented with the critical study of contemporary evidence from documentary sources which provide coherent and detailed data about weather extremes and related impacts on human, ecological and social systems.

Read more (requires email registration):

It wasn’t just 1540 – there is evidence the dry period lasted nine years, leading up to the 1540 drought.

Central Europe, 1531–1540 CE: The driest summer decade of the past five centuries?

Rudolf Brázdil 1,2, Petr Dobrovolný 1,2, Martin Bauch 3, Chantal Camenisch 4,5, Andrea Kiss 6,7, 5 Oldřich Kotyza 8, Piotr Oliński 9, Ladislava Řezníčková 1,2

1 Institute of Geography, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic
2 Global Change Research Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, Brno, Czech Republic 
3 Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), Leipzig, Germany
10 4 Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland 5Institute of History, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
6 Institute for Hydraulic Engineering and Water Resources Management, Vienna University of Technology, Vienna, Austria
7 Department of Historical Auxiliary Sciences, Institute of History, University of Szeged, 15 Hungary
8 Regional Museum, Litoměřice, Czech Republic
9 Institute of History and Archival Sciences, University of Toruń, Poland

Correspondence to: Rudolf Brázdil ( 20

Abstract. Based on three drought indices (SPI, SPEI, Z-index) reconstructed from the documentary evidence and instrumental records, the summers of 1531–1540 were identified as the driest summer decade during the 1501–2015 period in the Czech Lands. Based on documentary data, extended from the Czech scale to central Europe, dry patterns of various intensities (represented, for example, by dry spells, low numbers of precipitation days, very low rivers and drying-out of water sources) occurred in 1532, 1534–1536, 1538 and particularly 1540, broken by wetter or normal patterns in 1531, 1533, 1537 and 1539. Information relevant to summer droughts extracted from documentary data in central Europe were confirmed in summer precipitation totals from a multi-proxy reconstruction for Europe by Pauling et al. (2006) and further by self-calibrated summer PDSI reconstruction from tree- ring widths in OWDA by Cook et al. (2015). The summer patterns described are consistent with the distribution of sea-level pressure deviations from a modern reference period. Summer droughts were responsible for numerous negative impacts, such as bad harvests of certain crops, reduction and lack of water sources, and frequent forest fires, while in the wetter summers central Europe was affected by floods. However, there are no indications of severe impacts of multi-country or multi-year effect. Reconstructions based on documentary data indicate that the summers of 1531–1540 constitute the driest summer decade in central Europe for the past five centuries, between 1501 and 2010 CE.

Read more:

The point is, even if you believe global warming is making droughts more frequent, there is no way to prevent severe droughts from happening altogether. If a megadrought can occur during the middle of the little ice age, there is no reasonable global temperature which can prevent such events altogether.

Europeans have to be prepared for severe droughts, regardless of global CO2 levels or climate change.

Thankfully today, unlike our ancestors, we have the engineering capability to create large reservoirs to help us ride out such events.

We even have an inexpensive method to protect our water reservoirs from excess evaporation, thanks to an innovation developed in California.

Perhaps next time European leaders will be better prepared.

via Watts Up With That?

August 14, 2022