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“Przekrój” Magazine brings English-speaking readers some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in the fields of wellbeing, art, literature, science, ecology, philosophy, psychology, and more. Take a break from the speed and intensity of the daily news and join us!

History shows us that the weather is intrinsically connected with politics. More specifically, drastic ...
2020-01-05 09:00:00
Mind the climate

A Political Weather Forecast
The Domino Effect of Climate

Illustration by Igor Kubik
A Political Weather Forecast
A Political Weather Forecast

Large temperature swings, droughts and freezes changed the course of Europe’s history, even when they happened on the other side of the world, because that’s just how our climate is.

Read in 16 minutes

The long-term weather forecast is never completely reliable. In spite of this, each inhabitant of Europe ought to be interested in what is expected in the future; particularly in the south of the Old Continent, because just on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, Africa is stretching away. Every African country can currently boast record-beating natural population growth. Of the top 10 countries in the world with the largest surplus of births over deaths, eight of them are from Africa. And when researchers from Gallup World Poll interviewed 453,000 people in 152 countries between 2015 and 2017, the responses showed that the majority of potential migrants live in Africa. More than half of those questioned from Congo, Ghana and Nigeria dream of moving to the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. The statistical summary of the Gallup World Poll study shows that an estimated 200 million young Africans are thinking about emigrating to Europe.

Meanwhile, the natives of Europe are increasingly unenthusiastic about accepting foreigners, and therefore the risks associated with any decision to migrate there are significant. However, the weather forecast for the future suggests this will become less and less important. As the climate warms, Africa is more often hit by droughts, harvest failure and all types of catastrophic climate anomalies. These disasters bring poverty and famine and, above all, hopelessness, particularly in countries ruled by cruel dictators or a narrow oligarchy. At times like these, the millions of desperate people no longer think about risk, but rather that they have nothing left to lose. And so, off they set.

Drought on the Asian steppes

‘‘[…] without any beauty, […] though they all have closely-knit and strong limbs, and plump necks; they are of great size, and low legged, so that you might fancy them two-legged beasts […]’. That is how Ammianus Marcellinus described with horror the people arriving from the Asian steppes at the end of the 4th century. To top it all, the Huns pushed ahead of them dozens of Germanic tribes, who invaded the borders of Rome in their panic. “They (the Huns) […] are nearly always on horseback, their horses being ill-shaped, but hardy; and sometimes they even sit upon them like women if they want to do anything more conveniently. There is not a person in the whole nation who cannot remain on his horse day and night. On horseback they buy and sell, they take their meat and drink,” Marcellinus wrote about the invaders. But most important of all was that these Huns, attached to their steeds, were exceptional with the bow. No one could cope with their mounted archers – neither infantry nor cavalry, German nor Roman.

It only took one generation for the Roman Empire, with its proud 1000-year history, to come tumbling down like a house of cards. The tragedy, which changed the lives of the nearly 60 million citizens of the empire and saw the Germans flooding into its territory, unfolded like the proverbial domino effect. The first domino to fall, which led to the next, should be labelled ‘drought’. The significance of this drought was only realized at the turn of this century. 20 years ago, further evidence emerged that around 100 years after the birth of Christ, rain fell less and less often in the Middle East and East Asia. This was recorded in 2008 by American and Israeli geologists studying stalagmites in the Soreq Cave not far from Jerusalem. Similar observations were made in the Wanxiang Cave in China’s Gansu province.

In 2011, a team of researchers from Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the US, led by Ulf Büntgen, Professor of Environmental Systems Analysis, came to the same conclusion. The scientists tested nearly 9000 samples of wood provided by archaeologists. By tracking changes in the arrangement of the growth rings, they were able to identify the years when there was less water available. In the early centuries AD, from the shores of the Mediterranean right across to the South China Sea, there was a severe lack of rainfall. The great drought lasted almost 1000 years. In an article published in Science in November 2008, a team of scientists from China’s Lanzhou University proved that this was caused by the weakening of the summer monsoons. The drought, which devasted the Central Asian steppes, was also accompanied by harsher winters. There was no fodder for the horses and cattle, which was a death sentence for the hundreds of thousands of nomads who depended upon these animals. Hidden behind its Great Wall, China was able to resist them. However, a vast, undiscovered land stretched to the west. Faced with the decision between a slow, agonizing death and heading west, there could only be one option for the Huns.

The scourge of antiquity in Europe

St. Jerome of Stridon (Hieronymous) wrote in his letter: “If Rome be lost, where shall we look for help?” The great sage of the Church had fallen into despair at the news that the Visigoths, led by King Alaric I, had plundered Rome in 410. For over 800 years, no foreign army had managed to conquer the Eternal City. The scale of shock in the ancient world was indescribable. And so, the next domino fell…

Certainly, the drought in Asia would not have threatened Rome if its empire had been in better shape. However, it had been plagued by different ills for a long time. It had only just regained its strength after 100 years of continual civil war. Its absolute rulers were unable to govern effectively over a territory of some two million square kilometres. Ordinary people were burdened by poor harvests, high taxes and inflation due to a weakening currency (as the emperors continually lowered the content of silver and gold in coins). But lowering taxes and ensuring that coins were minted only from pure metal would have meant the emperors risked not having the funds to maintain the 400,000-strong army that was necessary to defend its borders. And if the soldiers didn’t get paid, they immediately set about overthrowing the emperor.

The list of weaknesses was much longer, but the Roman Empire survived in spite of them all – until an external threat appeared. The rulers themselves accelerated the arrival of the catastrophe. In 376, Emperor Valens agreed to grant asylum within the borders of the Empire to the Visigoths, who were fleeing the Huns from the shores of the Black Sea. He was counting on settling the refugees in Balkan houses left empty after the civil wars, raising new taxes from them, and securing new recruits for the army. But he hadn’t considered that if he charged the settlers the same taxes as other citizens and got his corrupt officials to extract said taxes, the Visigoths, who were used to freedom, would not take it.

It took two years of engagement with Roman taxation and bureaucracy for the newcomers to reach for their weapons – and with outstanding results. On 9th August 378, at the Battle of Adrianople, 40,000 legionnaires were killed, including Emperor Valens himself. This defeat signalled to the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes that the borders of Rome were open. Valens’ successors tried to fight on, but the hordes from the east taking part in in the great ‘migration of peoples’ – Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks, et al. – carved out ever larger areas of land from the crumbling empire. When Alaric plundered Rome in 410, the capital was moved to Ravenna until, finally, the Huns arrived, united under their talented leader Attila, known as the “Scourge of God”. In mortal fear of him, the Germanic tribes and the Roman state allied to put up resistance. In 451, the Asian invaders were defeated in the decisive Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, but it was now too late to stop the next dominoes from falling. It took less than 100 years from the symbolic breaching of the dam, which the Battle of Adrianople turned out to be, to the final fall of the Western Roman Empire, which was taken over by Barbarian tribes.

Viking summer

The great drought finally ended around the 9th century, after which Europe had a truly wonderful climate. According to the tree ring scientists, it was warm and damp for nearly 300 years. Plant life prospered and, alongside them, humans. Muhammad al-Idrisi, secretary to the Sicilian King Roger II, in his Tabula Rogeriana (written around 1154), described with delight the country of Poland, lying far to the north, calling it a “country of beautiful land”. The capital city of Kraków, according to al-Idrisi’s description, turned out to be “a pretty and great city, with numerous houses, apartments, markets, vineyards and gardens.” Incidentally, viticulture appeared to be excellent, so there were many vineyards across the whole of the south of the country, from Zielona Góra (in the west) to Przemyśl (in the east).

Thanks to the warmer climate, everyone prospered, even the people of Scandinavia. This brought a collective sigh of relief across the Old Continent. Since the 8th century, one of the most popular prayers included the phrase: “Lord! Save us from the wrath of the people of the north”, because their frustration at the scarcity of riches and food had regularly got the better of them. In those days, the Vikings (which in Old Norse means ‘people of the fjords’) jumped into their slender boats to embark on plundering expeditions. For 200 years, they regularly raided towns along the coast of England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France and Italy. They also quickly learned how to sail up river, travelling hundreds of kilometres inland, wreaking havoc and terror.

Climate change helped to civilize the Vikings. They adopted Christianity, started to build their own state, and entered into family alliances with ruling dynasties. In around 982, the Polish Prince Mieszko I (some medieval experts claim he was descended from Vikings) married his daughter, Świętosława, to Eric the Victorious, King of Sweden. This Polish woman, known to the Vikings as Sigrid, refused to give up the throne when she was widowed. What’s more, she decided for herself to marry Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, upsetting the balance of power in Scandinavia and sparking a series of wars.

Meanwhile the whole of Europe was now inhabited and the Vikings were too battle-worn to carve out a piece of the new state for themselves. Fortunately, the climate allowed them to make long journeys into the unknown. One of the defeated leaders, Erik the Red, sailed with a group of comrades to the west of Iceland, hoping for a slice of luck. And he discovered a large land. The coastline they sailed along looked very promising. Therefore, he named the unknown land ‘Green Land’ (in Old Norse – Grœnland). In 986, Erik the Red returned there, bringing some 500 settlers from Iceland. His sons, Leif and Thorvald, followed in their father’s footsteps and 20 years later also sailed west, reaching Long Island, which now forms the southern suburbs of New York.

According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, written 200 years later, the Vikings found the weather in North America just as clement as in Europe. In the place where they camped in 1002, they collected so many grapes that they named the newly discovered land ‘The Land of Vines’ (Vinland). In due course, Leif returned to Greenland and Thorvald sailed along the coast of America for a year and a half until he died during a skirmish with one of the indigenous peoples; those who, 500 years later, Christopher Columbus would call Indians. Little is known about further attempts by the Vikings to colonize America because the Saga of the Greenlanders, found in the 14th-century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók, breaks off in about 1030, just at the most interesting moment.

We do know, however, that their settlements remained. Traces of one were found in 1960, on the island of Newfoundland, close to the village of L’Anse aux Meadows. Thanks to satellite imagery, a second settlement was discovered in 2016, 480 kilometres away, at Point Rose. Fragments of weapons and nails dug up at the site allowed archaeologists to establish that the Vikings were settled in Canada between around 1100–1300. Then they disappeared, along with their knowledge of the Northwest Passage; the northern sea route to the New World. Most likely the climate was to blame once again.

The weather took a severe turn for the worse at the beginning of the 14th century. The first people to suffer badly from this were the inhabitants of Greenland. Endless winters and storms meant that sailing the northern sea route became increasingly dangerous. By the 15th century, the descendants of the Vikings had abandoned Greenland or died out due to the cold. Their cousins in America met a similar fate. Meanwhile, on the Old Continent, the autumn of the Middle Ages was underway.

Autumn ailments

“The data from ice cores in Greenland show an upsurge in volcanism around the middle of the thirteenth century,” writes William James Burroughs in his book Does the Weather Really Matter? “This could have contributed to the overall cooling of the Earth’s climate,” he adds. From around 1303, chroniclers in successive countries started to write about the arrival of harsh winters, the likes of which not even the older people could remember. These were accompanied by short, rainy springs and summers. The result was falling harvests and rising food prices. From 1315, before people could adapt to the new weather pattern, famine began to stalk the Old Continent. “Starving villagers were reduced to eating dogs and frogs. There were widespread reports of cannibalism, with mothers eating children, graves being robbed and the bodies of criminals cut down from gibbets to be eaten,” writes Burroughs.

But the worst was still to come. The sudden cooling, which led to a fall in food production in Europe, brought massive flooding in faraway China. “Reported to have killed several million people, they caused huge disruption of large parts of the country and substantial movements of wildlife, including rats,” recounts Burroughs. According to the observations of biologists, the migrating rats relocated to different parts of Asia, interbreeding as they went, spreading the plague bacteria, which had also started to mutate. “Once this virulent new strain of the disease had emerged, its subsequent spread was controlled by events which were largely unrelated to weather and climatic change,” concludes Burroughs. As a matter of fact, as before, the change in the weather only knocked down the first domino. The next shove came from humans; this time the Tartars and the Genoese.

During the era when the climate was mild, Italian towns had established colonies on the shores of the Black Sea in order to control the trading routes to India and China. In 1345, the Tartars of the Golden Horde tried to conquer Kaffa (Caffa or Feodosia), one of the colonies in Crimea. During the siege, they threw the dead bodies of plague victims over the defensive walls. The Genoese defenders of the city isolated the sick and manage to nip the epidemic in the bud, but they didn’t notice the rats on their ships. These travelled to Italy together with the plague bacteria, where towns and villages full of flea- and lice-ridden rats were waiting. The insects transferred from the animals to the people, infecting them with microbes. It turned out to be all the easier, because malnourishment always lowers the body’s immunity to disease.

When the first outbreaks of the epidemic occurred in Italy in 1347, the population of Europe was around 75 million. Over the next five years, nearly 25 million people died. “Burning pustules appeared on different parts of the body, and ulcerative goitres developed on the genitals or on the neck and shoulders. At first, they were the size of hazelnuts and patients were seized by violent shivering which quickly weakened them so they could no longer stand,” wrote the Franciscan monk, Michele di Piazza, describing the first symptoms of the killer bug.

Since the population of the Old Continent had had no previous contact with this exotic bacterium, they were completely defenceless against it. Of course, the epidemic eventually died out, but returned a few years later, then again (and again). According to estimates by demographers, by 1430 Europe’s population was only 30 million people. Fortunately, the autumn of the Middle Ages gave way to the Little Ice Age.

Winter is coming

The German chronicle Annales Lubicenses records that in the winter of 1324 “the whole Baltic Sea, between Denmark, the Slavic Country and Jutland, was frozen, such that highwaymen from the Slavic Country plundered some areas of Denmark and inns were set up on the ice in the middle of the sea for travellers.” These severe freezes turned out to be a several-year-long anomaly. After this, there was a small warming of the climate, but over successive centuries the Old Continent became gradually colder.

The reason why this happened is still disputed by geologists and astronomers to this day. The former blame the Greenland volcanoes; the latter the sun. At this time, the star that warms our planet entered a period of declining activity. The horrendous winter of 1324 coincided with the low point of this process, known by astronomers as the Wolf Minimum. After this, the sun became more active, before once again starting to ‘fall asleep’ between 1645–1715 – a time known as the Maunder Minimum, when it was truly chilly in Europe.

From a long-term perspective, this weather change had both advantages and disadvantages. After the nightmare of the autumn of the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of Europe adapted surprisingly well to the cold. They became increasingly better at dealing with epidemics, and the varieties of grain they grew turned out to be more resistant to cold and rain. The same thing happened with nation states. The need to face up to continual threats forced them to organize better. At the same time, the inhabitants of the Old Continent showed themselves to be capable of desperate behaviour and crazy courage.

Christopher Columbus decided to sail across the ocean in three tiny ships – the largest of them, ‘Santa Maria’, was just 21-metres-long – because he was convinced that somewhere on the other side must be India. 30 years later, Hernán Cortés set off to conquer the Aztec Empire and its 12 million people, with a force of just under 600 soldiers and adventurers, not remotely bothered that common sense suggested they had no chance at all. That period of history teemed with such madmen, pushing the boundaries of the known world.

Thanks to this, although the climate in Europe didn’t want to improve, the Old Continent experienced a period of extraordinarily rapid development. This was helped by a long period of stable weather. Although on average it was colder and rainier than in the 11th century, there were no anomalies that lasted longer than the life of one generation. The inhabitants of Europe managed quite well during the 50-year freeze of the Maunder Minimum, although climatologists who love to follow political watersheds note that the decline in the sun’s activity coincided with the 30 Years’ War and with Poland’s fall into a deep crisis because of war in Ukraine and the Swedish Deluge. Both events diametrically changed the balance of power in Europe.

The common denominator here was the aggressive expansion of Sweden. Successive rulers had dreamed of conquering the fertile land to the south of the Baltic Sea and of plundering wealthier countries in the same way the Vikings had once done. However, the power of this Scandinavian country was too small, and it wasn’t Sweden who took to weakening Poland’s place in Europe, but Russia. Her expansion coincided with the end of the Maunder Minimum when, from the start of the 18th century, the climate became milder.

That the climate is not eternal, was noticed only in the 1960s by chemist and geologist Charles David Keeling. He was the first to monitor the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. When he started to do this in 1959, he recorded 316 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the atmosphere. Updating the reading every year lead to the creation of the famous, constantly rising, Keeling Curve.

When, 10 years later, the measure that Keeling created reached 325 ppm, the scientist sounded the alarm in the White House. At first, he made some headway. “It is now pretty clearly agreed that the CO2 content will rise 25% by 2000. This could increase the average temperature near the earth’s surface by seven degrees Fahrenheit. This in turn could raise the level of the sea by 10 feet,” wrote Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an advisor to President Richard Nixon, in a briefing note, adding at the end: “Goodbye New York, goodbye Washington.” But this doomsday scenario didn’t happen, and another 50 years passed before it became noticeably warmer. Currently, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere consistently exceeds 400 ppm and, if it continues to rise so fast, this long-term change in the climate will ultimately topple the next domino. However, the next chapter of events will be written, as usual, by man.


Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska

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