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Medieval records help scientists understand climate history

EINSIEDELN, Switzerland-Diaries of day-to-day weather details from the age before 19th-century standardized thermometers are proving of great value to scientists who study today's climate. Historical accounts were once largely ignored, as they were thought to be fraught with inaccuracy or were simply inaccessible or illegible.

But the booming interest in climate change has transformed the study of ancient weather records from what was once a "wallflower science,'' says Christian Pfister, a climate historian at the University of Bern.

The accounts dispel any lingering doubts that the Earth is heating up more dramatically than ever before, he says. Last winter — when spring blossoms popped up all over the Austrian Alps, Geneva's official chestnut tree sprouted leaves and flowers, and Swedes were still picking mushrooms well into December — was Europe's warmest in 500 years, Pfister says. It came after the hottest autumn in a millennium and was followed by one of the balmiest Aprils on record.

"In the last year there was a series of extremely exceptional weather,'' he says. "The probability of this is very low.''

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