Articles | Volume 12, issue 11
Clim. Past, 12, 2107–2126, 2016
Clim. Past, 12, 2107–2126, 2016

Research article 01 Dec 2016

Research article | 01 Dec 2016

The 1430s: a cold period of extraordinary internal climate variability during the early Spörer Minimum with social and economic impacts in north-western and central Europe

Chantal Camenisch1,2, Kathrin M. Keller1,3, Melanie Salvisberg1,2, Benjamin Amann1,4,5, Martin Bauch6, Sandro Blumer1,3, Rudolf Brázdil7,8, Stefan Brönnimann1,4, Ulf Büntgen1,8,9, Bruce M. S. Campbell10, Laura Fernández-Donado11, Dominik Fleitmann12, Rüdiger Glaser13, Fidel González-Rouco11, Martin Grosjean1,4, Richard C. Hoffmann14, Heli Huhtamaa1,2,15, Fortunat Joos1,3, Andrea Kiss16, Oldřich Kotyza17, Flavio Lehner18, Jürg Luterbacher19,20, Nicolas Maughan21, Raphael Neukom1,4, Theresa Novy22, Kathleen Pribyl23, Christoph C. Raible1,3, Dirk Riemann13, Maximilian Schuh24, Philip Slavin25, Johannes P. Werner26, and Oliver Wetter1,2 Chantal Camenisch et al.
  • 1Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
  • 2Economic, Social, and Environmental History, Institute of History, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
  • 3Climate and Environmental Physics, Physics Institute, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
  • 4Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
  • 5Department of Geography and Planning, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada
  • 6German Historical Institute in Rome, Rome, Italy
  • 7Institute of Geography, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic
  • 8Global Change Research Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences, Brno, Czech Republic
  • 9Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Birmensdorf, Switzerland
  • 10School of the Natural and Built Environment, Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland
  • 11Department of Astrophysics and Atmospheric Sciences, Institute of Geosciences (UCM-CSIC), University Complutense, Madrid, Spain
  • 12Department of Archaeology and Centre for Past Climate Change, School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading, Reading, UK
  • 13Institute of Environmental Social Sciences and Geography, University of Freiburg, Germany
  • 14Department of History, York University, Toronto, Canada
  • 15Department of Geographical and Historical Studies, University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, Finland
  • 16Institute of Hydraulic Engineering and Water Resources Management, Vienna University of Technology, Vienna, Austria
  • 17Regional Museum, Litoměřice, Czech Republic
  • 18Climate & Global Dynamics Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, USA
  • 19Department of Geography, Climatology, Climate Dynamics and Climate Change, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany
  • 20Centre for International Development and Environmental Research, Justus Liebig University of Giessen, Giessen, Germany
  • 21Institut de Mathématique, Aix-Marseille University, Marseille, France
  • 22Historisches Seminar, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Mainz, Germany
  • 23University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
  • 24Historisches Seminar and Heidelberg Center for the Environment, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany
  • 25School of History, Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK
  • 26Department of Earth Science and Bjerknes Centre of Climate Research, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

Abstract. Changes in climate affected human societies throughout the last millennium. While European cold periods in the 17th and 18th century have been assessed in detail, earlier cold periods received much less attention due to sparse information available. New evidence from proxy archives, historical documentary sources and climate model simulations permit us to provide an interdisciplinary, systematic assessment of an exceptionally cold period in the 15th century. Our assessment includes the role of internal, unforced climate variability and external forcing in shaping extreme climatic conditions and the impacts on and responses of the medieval society in north-western and central Europe.

Climate reconstructions from a multitude of natural and anthropogenic archives indicate that the 1430s were the coldest decade in north-western and central Europe in the 15th century. This decade is characterised by cold winters and average to warm summers resulting in a strong seasonal cycle in temperature. Results from comprehensive climate models indicate consistently that these conditions occurred by chance due to the partly chaotic internal variability within the climate system. External forcing like volcanic eruptions tends to reduce simulated temperature seasonality and cannot explain the reconstructions. The strong seasonal cycle in temperature reduced food production and led to increasing food prices, a subsistence crisis and a famine in parts of Europe. Societies were not prepared to cope with failing markets and interrupted trade routes. In response to the crisis, authorities implemented numerous measures of supply policy and adaptation such as the installation of grain storage capacities to be prepared for future food production shortfalls.

Short summary
Throughout the last millennium, several cold periods occurred which affected humanity. Here, we investigate an exceptionally cold decade during the 15th century. The cold conditions challenged the food production and led to increasing food prices and a famine in parts of Europe. In contrast to periods such as the “Year Without Summer” after the eruption of Tambora, these extreme climatic conditions seem to have occurred by chance and in relation to the internal variability of the climate system.