Through detailed analysis of an ice core extracted from the Swiss-Italian Alps, scientists were able to closely monitor climate patterns across Europe between 1914 and 1919, linking them to war and pandemics for the first time.
Unusually wet and cold conditions could well contribute to more lives being lost on the battlefield, as well as interfering with bird migration behavior – possibly pushing birds and people closer together. Could have been otherwise.
“The atmospheric circulation changed and there was a lot of rain, very cold weather across Europe for six years,” says Alexander More, a climate scientist at Harvard University. “In this particular case, it was once in a 100-year discrepancy.”
“I’m not saying it was the cause of the ‘epidemic’, but it was certainly another powerful factor in a powerful, an already explosive situation.”
Of course, the account of the extreme conditions in the trenches of World War I is not new – rain and mud have been well documented. What this new research does is relate those conditions to the environmental patterns of the once-a-century.
Traces of sea salt trapped in the ice core revealed extremely unusual floods of Atlantic Ocean wind and associated rain in the winter of 1915, 1916 and 1918 – with peaks in mortality on the European battlefield.
Nearly 10 million military personnel are believed to have died in the First World War. Problems such as trench foot and frostbite would have been desolated by persistent moist conditions, while fights arising on the battlefield meant that wounded soldiers were very difficult to recover and rescue. Drowning, exposure and pneumonia claimed more lives.
Archaeologist Christopher Lovelak says, “We saw an increase in wet and cold conditions and an increase in mortality, especially from mid-1917 to mid-1918, from the Third Battle of Yars to the first wave of Spanish flu.” University of Nottingham in the UK.
In addition to making worse conditions worse for soldiers, researchers suggest that this climate anomaly may have played a large role in creating the right environment for the H1N1 influenza strain, triggering a deadly second wave of Spanish flu. To whom, the war ended.
This part of the research is more speculative, but the study points to inclement weather, as one cause of the Mallard duck – a primary reservoir of H1N1 – to migrate to Russia in general, rather than live in Western Europe . This placed them close to the military and civilian populations who were already struggling with untoward conditions.
More water means faster spread of the virus as it mixes with bird droppings, the researchers suggest, and perhaps the transmission of more viral strains of the flu that went on to kill 2.64 million people in Europe. With the world once again facing epidemics and climatic anomalies, there are important lessons to be learned here.
The research has been published in Geohealth.