Cold spells were dark times in Eastern Europe

Cooler periods coincided with conflicts and disease outbreaks

Some of Eastern Europe’s greatest wars and plagues over the last millennium coincided with cold periods, scientists report online January 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research in Birmensdorf and his colleagues reconstructed temperatures using tree rings from 282 living larch trees and 263 construction timbers from historical buildings in northern Slovakia. Because the width of tree rings varies with the temperature during the growing season, the researchers could estimate changes in May and June temperatures from 1040 to 2011. The Black Death in the mid-14th century, the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th century, the French invasion of Russia in the early 19th century and other social upheavals occurred during cold spells. The team suggests food shortages could explain the timing of some of these events.

WINTER BLUES Many of Eastern Europe’s greatest plagues and political conflicts over the last millennium — such as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 — occurred during cold spells, new temperature records show. Adolph Northen/Wikimedia Commons

Erin Wayman is the managing editor for print and longform content at Science News. She has a master’s degree in biological anthropology from the University of California, Davis and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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