Europe is experiencing the worst drought since the time of the Roman Empire, scientists found from annual rings of ancient oaks

2021 - 03 - 16

The drought and heat that have been plaguing Europe after 2014 are the worst since the time of the Roman Empire. This follows from the conclusions of a study based on an examination of annual rings.

In Europe, heatwaves in recent years have caused thousands of premature deaths, forest fires and damaged crops in fields. The main cause was the high temperatures recorded by meteorologists all over Europe.

The results of scientific research show that hot and dry years were exceptional not only during the recent years but over a much longer period. “This series is unprecedented over the last 2,000 years,” says Professor Ulf Büntgen from Cambridge University, leader of a scientific study aimed to determine the range of dry years based on annual rings. Since the time of the Roman Empire, Europe never experienced so dry a period as in recent years.

A study published in Nature Geoscience on Monday analysed 27,000 annual rings from 147 oaks. Wood from living trees helped determine the development of drought in the last century. For the remaining time period, experts examined the beams of old buildings, such as churches. Data on the climate in the Middle Ages were obtained from oak trunks preserved in river alluvium or gravel riverbeds. For the ancient era, scientists used wood from wells.

Previous climate reconstructions from annual rings were based on the width and density of the annual rings to determine temperature. The new study focused on the amount of carbon and oxygen isotopes to find how much water the trees had available. The results gave scientists an idea about the rate of drought in the relevant periods. The high frequency of droughts in recent years proved to be unprecedented in Europe, even compared to earlier devastating droughts, such as during the Renaissance in the early 16th century.

“More and more information shows that the current heat and drought are unparalleled not only in recent years but even over centuries or millennia. The governments of developed countries should therefore make much more efforts to stop climate change,” says Dalibor Dostal, Director of the European Wildlife conservation organization.

The wood samples used for the reconstruction of climatic conditions in Central Europe came from the Czech Republic and Germany, specifically from Bavaria.

The climate crisis is linked not only to hot summers but also to extremely humid winter weather. For example, on 3 October last year, precipitation in the United Kingdom was the strongest since measurements began in England in 1891. According to a study published last week, such torrential rain is three times more likely to recur due to global warming. In 2100, if the current trends persist, the probability will be up to tenfold.

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