Ancient records help test climate change
One of 13 diaries by Brother Josef, inscribed from 1671 to 1704.
EINSIEDELN, Switzerland - A librarian at this 10th century monastery leads a visitor beneath the vaulted ceilings of the archive past the skulls of two former abbots. He pushes aside medieval ledgers of indulgences and absolutions, pulls out one of 13 bound diaries inscribed from 1671 to 1704 and starts to read about the weather.
"Jan. 11 was so frightfully cold that all of the communion wine froze," says an entry from 1684 by Brother Josef Dietrich, governor and "weatherman" of the once-powerful Einsiedeln Monastery. "Since I've been an ordained priest, the sacrament has never frozen in the chalice."
"But on Jan. 13 it got even worse and one could say it has never been so cold in human memory," he adds.
Diaries of day-to-day weather details from the age before 19th-century standardized thermometers are proving of great value to scientists who study today's climate. Historical accounts were once largely ignored, as they were thought to be fraught with inaccuracy or were simply inaccessible or illegible. But the booming interest in climate change has transformed the study of ancient weather records from what was once a "wallflower science," says Christian Pfister, a climate historian at the University of Bern.
The accounts dispel any lingering doubts that the Earth is heating up more dramatically than ever before, he says. Last winter — when spring blossoms popped up all over the Austrian Alps, Geneva's official chestnut tree sprouted leaves and flowers, and Swedes were still picking mushrooms well into December — was Europe's warmest in 500 years, Pfister says. It came after the hottest autumn in a millennium and was followed by one of the balmiest Aprils on record....