Pollen frozen in ice in the Alps traces Europe’s calamities, since the time Macbeth ruled Scotland


As plague swept through Europe in the mid-1300s, wiping out more than a third of the region’s population, a glacier in the Alps was recording the upheaval of medieval society. While tens of millions of people were dying, pollen from the plants, trees and crops growing in Western Europe were being swept up by the winds and carried toward the Alps.

They became trapped in snowflakes and fell onto the region’s highest mountain, the Monte Rosa massif. Over time, the snow flattened into ever-growing layers of ice, storing a blow-by-blow record of regional environmental change.

Centuries later, the crop pollens trapped in the ice reveal the collapse of agriculture associated with the pandemic, as bad weather led to poor harvests and fields lay fallow because there was no one left to work them.

For more than 50 years, scientists have drilled ice cores in the Arctic and Antarctica to reconstruct uninterrupted records of climate change over hundreds of thousands of years. But these glaciers can be difficult to get to and they are far from where most people on Earth live.

Mid- to low-latitude glaciers, on the other hand, tend to be more accessible and lie at the heart of thousands of years of human activity. The Colle Gnifetti glacier, sitting near the Swiss-Italian border, and with a central location on the continent, has put it on a crash course with Europe’s dust for roughly 10,000 years.

Sandra Brügger, a climate scientist at the Institute of Plant Sciences and the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern, developed a technique to study the pollen, fungal spores, charcoal and soot locked in an ice core drilled from this Swiss glacier. She is aiming to disentangle the ways extreme weather, innovation, crop failures and pollution have shaped Europe since 1050, when Macbeth ruled Scotland.

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Written by Hannah

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