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Carved in stone: What are these warning signs that Europe’s drought has revealed

Hunger stones are a common hydrological marker in the region that date back to the pre-instrumental era

Photo: @histories_arch / TwitterPhoto: @histories_arch / Twitter

Europe is suffering from the worst drought in half a millennium according to the European Commission. Rivers have dried up so much that ‘hunger stones’ have been revealed and have gone viral on social media.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that hunger stones have been revealed. They had appeared four years ago in 2018 as well, when river levels had similarly dropped.

But this time, things are much more grim than 2018. Officials themselves have agreed about this.

“We haven’t analysed fully this year’s event because it is still ongoing,” Andrea Toreti of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre stated recently.

“There were no other events in the past 500 [years] similar to the drought of 2018. But this year, I think, is worse,” he had added.

Popular talk show host Trevor Noah talked about the drought on the continent and the appearance of hunger stones August 17, 2022.

What are hunger stones

Hunger stones, or hungersteine in German, are a common hydrological marker in central Europe. They date back to the pre-instrumental era.

Christian Pfister, a climate historian and professor at the University of Bern, Switzerland had noted in an academic paper published in 2010:

…On the other hand, a certain number of pre-instrumental low-water indicators are known for that region. Pointer rocks are known for the Rhine and Lake Constance…Local pointer rocks, called hunger-stones (“Hungersteine”) are known for many rivers…

Hydrological winter droughts over the last 450 years in the Upper Rhine basin: a methodological approach was published in the Hydrological Sciences Journal.

“People occasionally preserved the memory of outstanding low water events by carving the year onto rocks emerging from rivers and lakes.

But, this information is rather sporadic, given the fact that droughts did not severily hamper winter grains which was the most important staple food. However, the low water levels hampered milling so that flour and bread became expensive,” Pfister told Down To Earth over email.

Scientists such as Rudolf Brazdil from the Institute of Geography, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, along with others had also alluded to hunger stones in a 2013 paper:

Hydrological droughts may also be commemorated by what are known as “hunger stones”. One of these is to be found at the left bank of the River Elbe (Decın-Podmokly), chiselled with the years of hardship and the initials of authors lost to history.

The inscription on this hunger stone reads Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine (“If you see me, weep.”).

“It expressed that drought had brought a bad harvest, lack of food, high prices and hunger for poor people,” Droughts in the Czech Lands, 1090–2012 AD noted.

The following droughts are commemorated on the stone: 1417, 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892, and 1893. “Similarly, Pfister (2006) mentions low-water marks of the River Rhine on the stone known as ‘Laufenstein’,” the paper added.

The Elbe, which flows from the Czech Republic into the North Sea near Hamburg, is one waterway that has 22 known hunger stones. They are also found in other rivers such the Rhine, the Danube and the Weser.

Major rivers on the continent have dried up due to the current drought. These include the Rhine in Germany, the Po in Italy, the Thames in the United Kingdom and the Loire in France.

Hunger stones do have value in the present, according to Pfister.

The annual information on hunger stones needs to be cross-checked with contemporary narrative information. It helps to reconstruct extreme droughts in the past in comparison with those in the present time,” he told DTE.

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