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A one-of-a-kind climatic anomaly could have made World War I even more lethal

An abnormally bad weather season could have had a significant impact on the death toll of both World War I and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, according to new research, with far more lives lost due to torrential rains and precipitous temperatures.

Through a detailed analysis of an ice core extracted from the Italian-Swiss Alps, scientists were able to closely observe climate patterns across Europe between 1914 and 1919, linking them for the first time to war and pandemic. .

The unusually wet and cold conditions may have contributed to more lives being lost on the battlefield, as well as interfering with the birds’ migration behavior, potentially pushing birds and people closer than they otherwise would have been.

“The atmospheric circulation has changed and there has been a lot more rain, a much colder climate across Europe for six years,”

; says climate scientist Alexander More of Harvard University. “In this particular case, it was a 100-year anomaly.”

“I’m not saying that this was the cause of the pandemic, but it was certainly an enhancer, a further factor in exacerbating an already explosive situation”.

Of course, the reports of the dire conditions in the trenches of World War I are not new: the rain and mud have been well documented. What this new research does is link these conditions to once-in-a-century environmental patterns.

Traces of sea salt trapped in the ice core revealed extremely unusual inflows of Atlantic Ocean air and associated precipitation in the winters of 1915, 1916 and 1918, coinciding with peaks in death rates on the European battlefield.

Nearly 10 million military personnel are believed to have died in total during World War I. Problems such as trench footing and freezing would be exacerbated by the consistently humid conditions, while quagmires created on the battlefield made it much more difficult to recover and rescue wounded soldiers. Drowning, exposure and pneumonia have claimed more lives.

“We found that the association between wetter and colder conditions and increased mortality is particularly strong from mid-1917 to mid-1918, spanning the period from the third Battle of Ypres to the first wave of Spanish flu,” says the archaeologist Christopher Loveluck of the University of Nottingham in the UK.

In addition to worsening the poor conditions for the soldiers, the researchers suggest that this climatic anomaly may have played an important role in creating the perfect environment for the H1N1 flu strain to trigger a more deadly second wave of Spanish flu, which has recovered. at the end of the war.

This part of the research is more speculative, but the study points to bad weather as one reason that mallard ducks – a primary reservoir of H1N1 – remain in Western Europe, rather than migrating to Russia normally. This would have kept them closer to the military and civilian populations already struggling with unsanitary conditions.

More water would have meant faster spread of the virus as it mixed with bird droppings, the researchers suggest, and possibly the transmission of a more virulent strain of influenza that killed 2.64 million people in Europe. With the world once again facing a pandemic and climate anomalies today, there may be important lessons to be learned here.

The research was published in GeoHealth.

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