Reminders of a long-forgotten past are resurfacing all over Europe. The recent record droughts in Europe have brought to the surface some old reminders that, while we are experiencing an extreme summer with record heat waves and droughts, these extreme events are not unprecedented.
In the rivers Elbe and Rhein, which flow across central Europe into the North Sea, carved stones have resurfaced as the drought has brought their water levels to record lows.
These stones are the so-called “Hunger Stones,” reminders of droughts centuries ago, left as a warning for future generations. They have various inscriptions, some simply marking the year, others with warnings of impending bad harvests and potential famines. One found in in Děčín in the Elbe river reads in German “Wenn Du mich siehst, dann weine” which translates as “When you see me, weep”.
Some of these Hunger Stones have been appearing more frequently, not due to droughts, but simply due to morphological changes in the riverbed. The construction of canals or dams, as well as natural variations over centuries have in some cases altered river flows. However, this year a record number of stones have resurfaced and new stones uncovered that had not been recorded in living memory.
Markings on these Hunger Stones found in Děčín go back all the way to 1515. It is believed the “When you see me, weep, ”inscription dates back to 1904.
Not all of the marked stones found are necessarily famine markers but simply navigation markers for ships, as minimum water levels were required for safe navigation. The rivers were the main transport route across Europe and the river Rhine is still used by 200,000 ships every year, emphasizing the importance of these markers for navigation purposes.
Some of these markers appeared four years ago during the drought in 2018, but the sheer number of Hunger Stones appearing this year is raising concerns that 2022 may be a once-in 500-year drought, akin to the 1540 megadrought. Climate records are being broken across the globe this year but many statistics only date back to the 1950s. These century-old markers can provide us with benchmarks for extreme events centuries ago in light of the lack of actual weather records.