The Great Drought of 1540: A Sign of the Times Ahead?

The Hunger Stone at Decin, Czechia. Source: Dr. Bernd Gross at the German-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Temperatures of over 40° Celsius (100° Fahrenheit) for weeks in regions accustomed to cooler temperatures and rain. Dried up rivers as far as the eye can see, such as the Rhine, Po, Elbe and Seine. Reservoirs and lakes becoming a mere puddle of mud. Forest and brush fires at every corner. People dying of heat stroke and other heat-related elements. Commerce being brought to a standstill. The Great Drought of 2022 has the makings of being the worst in 500 years. No matter which news source you turn to, you will see daily coverage of this big event, with people witnessing the event and grieving over the loss of their loved ones, their homes and their businesses. This drought has affected almost the entire European continent, from Britain to Italy, Denmark to Portugal. Even Germany has been affected by temperatures and dry air normally seen in Africa most of the year. It has contributed to this year being the hottest year on record across the globe, and many are wondering what has yet to come?

The drought has uncovered relicts of history that had been inundated underwater for many decades. One of those artefacts discovered were the Hunger Stones- hydrological landmarks that serve as a warning of famine and other ailments as a result of the drought. The most famous one is located in the River Elbe near the Czech town of Decin, having the scriptures that read “When you see me, weep.” That plus many others along the Elbe and Rhine were discovered with years inscribed in them that go back to the 12th Century. Still, if there is one year that stands out as the year of the deadliest drought on record- the “Mega-Drought,” that would be the year 1540.


Why 1540?

At times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and painful moments. Like the ever flowing water of a river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood- Martin Luther


Why would we pin-point the year of 1540 as being the worst? That was something that researchers, including historian Christian Pfister of the University of Berne in Switzerland, have been working to solve this riddle. Pfister discovered (and based his work on) over 300 original sources that described what that mega-drought may have looked like and what this year’s drought might mean for civilization in general in the future.  According to his research, the 1530s experienced a drought that can be compared to the droughts Europe and parts of North America and Africa have been facing over the past decade- lack of rainfall combined with low water levels, excessive heat, forest fires and in many areas, below-average harvests to even crop failure. In Transylvania (present-day Romania), people died of famine and corpses littered the streets with their mouths stuffed with grass. In present-day Germany and Eastern Europe, water mills ceased operation because of dry rivers and canals. Prices of grain and other essential commodities (dairy, meat and vegetables) skyrocketed. People tried to dig for water with no avail.  Even the Rhine had dried out by 1540, to a point where a person could walk across it. Yet little did Europeans realize that the worst was yet to come by the time the Mega-Drought had rolled around.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on


How was 1540 as bad or worse than 2022?

Pfister points out in his research that only a third of the rainfall that had been expected in Europe fell during that entire year. Yet the domino-effect started in Italy, where the winter of 1539-40 felt like July. Rainfall was non-existent for 11 months until it finally snowed in December 1540. It became noticeable during the first few months of 1540 as extreme heat and dry weather spread throughout the rest of the continent. Grounds cracked to a point where one could put his entire foot in it. Rivers and lakes went completely dry. Even the ground water supply was non-existent and whatever water was available, people fought over it for their purposes. Crop failures were widespread. Even the grapes along the vineyards had ripened too early and would later turn into raisins. In Würzburg, Germany,  the grapes were ripe early but dried up and raisin-like. Therefore the winegrowers pressed them any way and invented the “late harvest”. It became a legendary harvest, and four bottles still remains unopened to this day, as a way of showing evidence of the drought’s existence. Commerce grounded to a halt because of a lack of water in the rivers. Construction of houses and other forms of infrastructure was suspended because of the heat. People took cover in cellars and other cool places and stayed there until sundown.

The worst of the drought were the forest fires. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forests, fields and anything that was dried-up became victims of the burning inferno- making the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 look like a small pin on a map of continental Europe. From Poland to the Alps in France, to even the Netherlands, everything went up in flames, despite tiring efforts by the locals to extinguish the fires. 

All in all, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Europeans died during the Mega-Drought of 1540. In today’s standards it would be up to 65 million inhabitants- covering the entire population of Great Britain and Ireland combined! Those who did survive the Mega-Drought did not do so unscathed because of the increase in famine and other diseases caused by malnutrition. There had been droughts that had followed over the course of 500 years, many of which were even etched in the aforementioned hunger stones, still 1540, according to Pfister, is a year that one should take reference to because of the drought’s intensity combined with other anomalies that had existed during that time, some of which have yet to be resolved.

The Black Swan Event and the Question of Water

1540 should be taken seriously because of the Black Swan effect, meaning one year that is extraordinarily destructive because of drought, heat and fires. Many historians claim that 2003 was the last Black Swan event. It was that year where a heatwave dominated much of Europe with temperatures above 40°C for weeks. Tens of thousands of people died from heat-related illnesses; many of these deaths happened in France and western Germany. Yet Pfister and others claim that another Black Swan may be around the corner and can come where people least expect it.  

Already, since 2018, much of Europe has experienced a major drought in all but one year, which was last year. The Great Drought of 2022 may be the worst drought in almost 500 years, because of temperatures that were well above normal, combined with dozens of heatwaves and wildfires that engulfed many parts of Europe. Already in Germany alone, over 4293 hectares of land has been scorched by wildfires alone this year, with numerous fires reported in North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, Saxony, Bavaria and Brandenburg. This was largely in part to a very dry spring and a drought which started in June and has been ongoing. Yet similar anomalies were reported as far north as Great Britain, where waters of the Thames and other rivers set historically low records.

As Pfister states, there is a potential for a more devastating year that could trump the Mega-Drought of 1540 as long as global temperatures continue to rise and there is little action to cap the global temperature increase of 1.5° Celsius by 2030. The reason: technology and the use of water.

“If the technology fails, we are really in trouble,” he stated in an interview with Politico. “If there are too many nuclear power stations closed down for some reason or another, we are in serious trouble, because we have a civilization that depends 100 percent or 99 percent on electricity. And if it fails, everything fails. We cannot even go to the supermarket and pay for something. We cannot get gasoline. We are very vulnerable in this respect.”

Photo by Pixabay on

No matter how we twist and turn the story, our society cannot survive without the use of water. Water is needed for operating machines, for transporting goods, for growing our crops, for drinking, for cooking and for swimming and/or cooling off. While people in 1540 were able to survive the drought simply through basics, our society today is too reliant on water and technology and lack the simple survival skills that existed almost 500 years ago. Before another Black Swan comes and causes havoc that is more than what happened in 1540, it is time we better manage our water by conserving it and using it for reasons of survival. In some cases, desalinization of sea water into drinking water used for irrigation of plants, trees and other vegetation may be the only answer to respond to the drought, like it is being sought after in California, which is in its 22nd year of drought with no end in sight.  Whether we like to downplay the scenario or not, if we continue with the “business as usual” approach we could someday see the Mega-Drought that could encompass this drought as well as the one from 1540. And when that happens, we may not live to tell the story.



Hunger Stones:

The 1540 Mega-Drought in Europe:

Politico- It’s hot and dry out there, but it ain’t as bad as 1540 (yet) by Christian Pfister:

2022 Heatwave in Europe:



2 thoughts on “The Great Drought of 1540: A Sign of the Times Ahead?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s