CCNet 108/2002 - 18 September 2002
"Astronomers have the first direct evidence that a newly discovered
object orbiting Earth is debris from one of the Apollo moon launches over
30 years ago. Carl Hergenrother and Robert Whiteley, astronomers at the
Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, used the
Steward Observatory 61-inch telescope near Mount Bigelow in the Santa
Catalina Mountains north of Tucson for observations of J002E3. "Rather than
looking like a known asteroid, the colors were consistent with the spectral
properties of an object covered with white Titanium oxide (TiO)
paint," Hergenrother said. "The Apollo Saturn S-IVB upper stages were
painted with TiO paint," he noted."
--University of Arizona News Services, 17 September 2002
"Worden wants the U.S., which has the technology to identify the
nature of these air blasts, to set up a warning center that could
reassure rival nuclear-armed nations on the subcontinent, as well as in
Asia and the Middle East, that they are under asteroid, not nuclear,
attack. Until that kind of center is up and functioning, my new asteroid
dreams will not have happy endings."
--Leon Jaroff, Time Magazine, 17 September 2002
(1) UA ASTRONOMERS DISCOVER THAT EARTH'S SECOND MOON WEARS APOLLO PAINT
The University of Arizona, 17 September 2002
(2) SCIENTISTS HOPE TO MONITOR SPACE JUNK HITTING MOON
Space.com, 16 September 2002
(3) SEE THE SPACE JUNK THAT MIGHT HIT THE MOON
Space.com, 16 September 2002
(4) LEON JAROFF: IT'S THE LITTLE ASTEROIDS THAT GET YOU
Time Magazine, 17 September 2002
(5) SCIENTISTS PIECING TOGETHER MYSTERY OF CRATER
The Virginian-Pilot, 16 September 2002
(6) AND FINALLY: WE JUST HOLD OUR LIQUOR BETTER :-)
Ananova, 17 September 2002
(1) UA ASTRONOMERS DISCOVER THAT EARTH'S SECOND MOON WEARS APOLLO PAINT
>From The University of Arizona, 17 September 2002
Tuesday, 17 September 2002
Astronomers have the first direct evidence that a newly discovered object
orbiting Earth is debris from one of the Apollo moon launches over 30 years
Carl Hergenrother and Robert Whiteley, astronomers at the Lunar and
Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, used the Steward
Observatory 61-inch telescope near Mount Bigelow in the Santa Catalina
Mountains north of Tucson for observations of J002E3.
The mysterious object named J002E3 was discovered in orbit around Earth on
Sept. 3 by amateur astronomer Bill Yeung, viewing from a site in southern
California. The discovery made news headlines as it could be the only
satellite, other than the moon, naturally captured by Earth to enter Earth
After studying the object's past motion, Paul Chodas of the NASA Jet
Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., concluded that the object
had been orbiting the sun until April of this year, when it was captured by
Earth. Researchers have believed that J002E3's small size and unusual orbit
suggest the object is no asteroid or other natural object, but a piece of
man-made "space junk," possibly a piece of one of the Saturn V rockets that
launched American astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program. The JPL
news release is on the web at http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov
Hergenrother and Whiteley measured reflected light from the object Sept. 12
and 13. The photometric measurements showed that the object spins once every
63.5 seconds or once every 127 seconds - more observations are needed to pin
down the exact time, Hergenrother said. "Such a rapid rate of rotation is
not unheard of either for an asteroid or a piece of man-made space junk, but
is very consistent with each," he added.
The UA astronomers made their definitive observations with various filters
to sample the colors, or spectra, that J002E3 reflects.
"Rather than looking like a known asteroid, the colors were consistent with
the spectral properties of an object covered with white Titanium oxide (TiO)
paint," Hergenrother said. "The Apollo Saturn S-IVB upper stages were
painted with TiO paint," he noted.
Hergenrother and Whiteley checked their observations with some professional
colleagues, " a kind of informal 'peer review' just in case we were way off
on things," Hergenrother said.
Those key colleagues include Richard Binzel and Andy Rivken of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Binzel and Rivken took infrared
spectra on the unique object, and those spectra "confirm that J002E3 is a
dead ringer for white TiO paint," Hergenrother added.
The object is most likely a S-IVB from either Apollo 8, 10, 11, or 12, with
Apollo 12 being most likely, the UA researchers conclude.
"As Bill Yeung said, this is the first recorded observation of any object
being captured into a geocentric orbit," Hergenrother said.
"There is also a fairly good chance that J002E3 might crash into the moon at
some point. Scientifically, that isn't too important, but it is interesting,
" he said.
(2) SCIENTISTS HOPE TO MONITOR SPACE JUNK HITTING MOON
>From Space.com, 16 September 2002
By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
TAOS, NEW MEXICO - The chance that a derelict rocket stage may hit the Moon
has stirred up hopes of gathering valuable lunar science data.
In early September, an object was discovered slipping through space. Later
tagged J002E3, the mystery flotsam is speculated to be a relic of space
program's past: A Saturn IVB upper stage from the Apollo 12 mission that
flew in November 1969. After its use, the rocket stage was cast off.
Although tracking experts are still assessing J002E3's trajectory, early
reports suggest the object might slam into the Moon next year. The odds are
20 percent but could change as more is learned about the exact path of
J002E3. If the impact occurs, equipment left there by Apollo moonwalkers
could turn the crash of space junk into a bit of smashing science.
The rocket that might have created the junk, and a space-based view of
another Apollo mission's rocket booster similar to the one that might hit
the Moon next year.
Starting with the second landing expedition on the Moon, Apollo Lunar
Surface Experiment Packages (ALSEPs) were deployed by astronauts. Spread out
on the Moon's surface, the equipment gathered important science information,
from sensing the magnetic field at the lunar surface to probing subsurface
These nuclear-powered ALSEPs also included a passive seismometer.
The Passive Seismic Experiment used four extremely sensitive seismometers to
measure lunar surface vibrations, free oscillations, and tidal variations in
surface tilt. The electronics of the experiment were housed in the ALSEP
central station. A thermal shroud isolated the sensor as well as a patch of
ground several feet in diameter from temperature extremes of the lunar day
These seismometers were built to detect the natural rumbles from
"moonquakes." They also registered the deliberate crashing into the Moon of
human-made objects in the Apollo era. Those crashes involved several spent
lunar module ascent stages -- the top part of the lunar lander that whisked
astronauts off the Moon to the awaiting Apollo Command Service Module -- as
well as a number of Saturn IVB stages purposely sent careening into the
Now, here's the catch: In a money-saving decision, the ALSEP packages were
"gracefully" shut off in late September 1977. The question is, can they be
"If we find that it's possible to turn the ALSEPs on in anticipation of a
hit by an upper stage of a Saturn V, then I think there would be a
tremendous scientific return," said Apollo 17 moonwalker, Harrison Schmitt.
The former astronaut and professional geologist was the last man to step
onto the Moon in December 1972.
Schmitt was in attendance at The Moon Beyond 2002: Next Steps in Lunar
Science and Exploration held here Sept. 12-14.
NASA should look into the possibility of turning the Apollo 12, 14, 15, and
16 ALSEP hardware back on, depending on how long they could be left on for a
reasonable cost, Schmitt said. "The Apollo 17 seismometer probably wouldn't
be of any use," he said. "It had a mistake in its design and wasn't really
built for that kind of information anyway."
But bringing back to life an ALSEP network on the Moon would be a scientific
"You always have the possibility of getting additional sizable impacts that
can add to the general understanding -- much more than we have now -- about
the interior structure of the Moon," Schmitt said.
In the past, by using Saturn V's upper stages as sources of energy, Schmitt
said, the ALSEP seismometer network yielded a primary source of data about
the crust and mantle of the Moon in certain regions.
Schmitt said that he and other lunar scientists plan to look into the ALSEP
reactivation matter, given the knowledge that the rocket stage will indeed
strike the Moon at some point.
Meanwhile, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says Earth-based
infrared sensors would probably be able to detect the impact if it were to
occur on the side of the Moon facing Earth.
Copyright 2002, Space.com
(3) SEE THE SPACE JUNK THAT MIGHT HIT THE MOON
>From Space.com, 16 September 2002
By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
A group of asteroid researchers photographed and animated Earth's newest
satellite, an object captured recently by Earth's gravity and one that is
likely a hunk of Apollo-era junk that's wandering home.
The astronomers, at Fort Bend Astronomy Club in Texas, used an 18-inch
telescope at the Houston Museum of Natural Science's George Observatory and
an electronic CCD camera, said club member Len Casady.
The newfound object orbits Earth about twice as far away as the Moon and has
a 20 percent chance of hitting the Moon next year. It can only be directly
seen in very large telescopes, roughly 18 inches (0.46 meter) and bigger. It
can likely be imaged with smaller telescopes, down to about 8 inches (0.2
meter), if they are equipped with CCD cameras that collect light over long
Some researchers speculated the object, temporarily designated J002E3, might
be a natural satellite -- an asteroid captured into orbit. But Paul Chodas
at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory ran computer simulations, reported early
Thursday, that suggest it is a Saturn V third stage rocket booster, most
likely from the Apollo 12 mission, launched in 1969.
Desktop computer work
Chodas told SPACE.com late Thursday he can't put exact odds on what the
object is, but that it is "very unlikely to be a natural object." He used
data on the satellite's position and path to model its history on a desktop
Chodas said the real work was not running the computer model but rather the
manual effort of interpreting the results and investigating various
"My Pentium 3 machine is far from state-of-the-art, but it can propagate a
sample orbit back 30 years in less than a second," he said. "I often try
tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of sample orbits, all
slightly different, and propagate them backwards or forwards for decades in
order to study the various possible outcomes."
Chodas also models newly found asteroids with similar software to learn
whether they might have a chance of hitting Earth.
His simulations found that J002E3 -- initially thought to be an asteroid
when discovered on Sept. 3 -- also has a 3 percent chance of re-entering
Earth's atmosphere over the next decade. Both odds may change as more
observations are gathered and fed into the computer model.
Watching the impact
If the object were to hit the Moon, Chodas said astronomers could possibly
observe the impact if it occurred on the side of the Moon facing Earth.
"Modern Earth-based sensors, especially those in the infrared wavelengths,
would probably be able detect such an impact," he said.
Five Apollo rocket stages were purposely crashed into the Moon in the 1960s
and '70s to calibrate seismic instruments that had been left on the Moon by
earlier missions and to investigate the lunar crust.
J002E3 is currently at magnitude 16.5 on a scale used by astronomers to
denote brightness. Larger numbers indicated dimmer objects. The dimmest
object visible to the human eye is around magnitude 6.0 under totally dark
skies. The brightest stars are near magnitude zero
Copyright 2002, Space.com
(4) LEON JAROFF: IT'S THE LITTLE ASTEROIDS THAT GET YOU
>From Time Magazine, 17 September 2002
Forget about looking for the six-mile-across monster asteroids. A much
smaller one could trigger a nuclear incident
My friends tell me that I'm obsessed with asteroids, and maybe they're
right. When the late Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez more than two decades ago
proposed his theory that a comet or asteroid had done in the dinosaurs,
paleontologists and many other scientists pooh-poohed the idea. But his
reasoning immediately resonated with me, probably because I was just
ignorant about geology. In a high state of excitement, I published a major
story in Discover magazine, lauding the theory. It just made so much sense.
Several years later, when a 110-mile-wide, 65 million-year-old, buried
crater was discovered under the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, my story in
TIME was headlined, "At Last, the Smoking Gun." Virtually no doubt remained.
The crater had been made by the object, probably an asteroid about ten miles
across, that killed the dinosaurs. To celebrate, my wife and I threw a big
party for our bewildered neighbors.
Over the next several years, I dreamt frequently about asteroids, published
a dozen stories about them in TIME and became convinced not only that that
they had caused massive extinctions in the past, but that they almost
certainly would do so again - unless we learn to intercept and divert or
destroy them long before they are due to strike. Indeed, my dreams usually
had happy endings, involving successful intercepts that Saved Civilization.
Urged on by such luminaries as the late Gene Shoemaker and the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory's asteroid hunter, astronomer Eleanor Helin, I
campaigned for increased funding of the small band of selfless astronomers
scanning the night skies for threatening asteroids. For my troubles, Helin
got the International Astronomical Union to name an asteroid after me. It's
called 7829 Jaroff, it's probably about five miles across, it hangs out near
the orbit of Mars and, like me, presents no immediate threat to Earth.
Anyhow, after all that, I had good reason to think that I knew practically
everything there was to know about asteroids and their threat to Earth -
until this summer, when Brig. Gen Pete Worden, deputy director of the U.S.
Space Command, disabused me of that notion. Though the asteroid detection
program has so far concentrated on finding the big guys, civilization-ending
monsters about six-tenths of a mile across or larger, Worden thinks that the
more plentiful, and harder-to-detect smaller ones present a more imminent
Many of these asteroids are not massive enough to penetrate the atmosphere
and strike Earth. But, as they hurtle into the atmosphere at tens of
thousands of miles per hour, friction heats them so rapidly that they
explode before reaching the ground. By now, we've all heard of the asteroid,
about 300 ft. in diameter, that in 1908 exploded about five miles above the
uninhabited Tunguska region of Siberia. The blast, estimated today at 10
megatons, burned and felled trees and killed wildlife over an area of
several hundred square miles. And as recently as 1996, an asteroid exploded
over Greenland with the equivalent of a 100 kiloton blast. Had either of
these intruders from space met their demise over, say, London or New York,
hundreds of thousands might have perished.
That's bad enough, and we'd certainly better start looking harder for the
smaller guys. But, as Worden warns, these diminutive asteroids can trigger a
danger even greater that their explosive potential. Last June for example,
during the standoff between nuclear powers India and Pakistan, an asteroid
no more than 30 feet across exploded over the Mediterranean sea with the
force of a one kiloton bomb. Had that blast occurred anywhere over the
subcontinent, Worden fears, neither side could have distinguished between a
nuclear blast and an exploding asteroid. Mistaking the event as a first
strike, they might have launched a nuclear exchange and killed millions.
Worden wants the U.S., which has the technology to identify the nature of
these air blasts, to set up a warning center that could reassure rival
nuclear-armed nations on the subcontinent, as well as in Asia and the Middle
East, that they are under asteroid, not nuclear, attack. Until that kind of
center is up and functioning, my new asteroid dreams will not have happy
Copyright © 2002 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
(5) SCIENTISTS PIECING TOGETHER MYSTERY OF CRATER
>From The Virginian-Pilot, 16 September 2002
By DIANE TENNANT,
Thirty-five million years ago, a meteorite hurtled out of the sky and
blasted a mile-deep hole in what is now the coast of Virginia. Or did it?
Whatever the object, asteroid or ice ball, it was two miles wide. Or was it?
>From samples of earth drilled out of the crater came particles of shocked
quartz, the only positive proof that the hole was created by an
extraterrestrial impact. Or is it?
In the past year, scientists from around the world have continued their
studies of the Chesapeake Bay impact crater, the sixth-largest on Earth and
one of the best preserved. From South Africa to Arizona to Illinois to
Hampton Roads, scientists are trying to reconstruct what happened, when it
happened and what the lasting effects are, from earthquakes to salty
New studies are constantly being proposed; old ones are continuing.
So much has been learned. And so much more remains to be discovered.
Much of what is known about the crater came from cores, long cylinders of
sand, clay and rock pulled from thousands of feet underground. Drilling a
new core hole began in July on the grounds of Watkins Elementary School in
Cores already had been collected from the Eastern Shore, from NASA Langley
in Hampton and from two sites in Mathews County, all within the crater. This
one would be taken from just outside the crater rim.
The cores show clearly that the sediment layers on top of the crater are in
perfect order, youngest on top and aging as they go deeper. Once into the
layer of rubble that fills the crater, all order disappears. Rocks and
fossils of various ages are jumbled together, where the enormous blast of
the comet or meteorite hurled them into the air, then collected them
randomly as seawater rushed to fill the void.
Evidence seems to be pointing toward a comet. At the upcoming Geological
Society of America meeting in Denver, U.S. Geological Survey scientist C.
Wylie Poag will present information on that topic, citing evidence of three
craters that date from the same time period: Chesapeake Bay, a smaller
crater called Tom's Canyon off New Jersey and a crater at Popigai in
David Powars, the USGS geologist who first proposed the existence of a
Chesapeake Bay crater, now thinks that the object was smaller than first
believed. He will discuss his reasoning at the October meeting.
Other subjects to be presented include fossil findings. Previously, the one
definite indicator of an impact crater was shocked minerals: quartz and
other minerals fractured in distinctive ways. Paleontologists will propose
that the Chesapeake Bay crater has produced objects so indicative of
extraterrestrial impact that they could be used to identify other buried
craters. Those objects are burned and deformed shells of microscopic
creatures, showing damage that could only be caused by high-speed,
And all of this research begins at the core holes.
In the sweltering heat of July, Powars sat outside a tent and wrote
descriptions of cores in a log book. ``It's just loaded with fossils,'' he
said. ``See, they look like a Pop Tart. There's two parts to it.''
Three residents of a nearby subdivision wandered over to see what was going
on. ``What is that?'' asked the grandmother. ``Dirt?''
``This is the typical matrix,'' Powars told her. ``It's got bugs in it that
are 35 million years old.''
``Wait a minute,'' interjected T. Scott Bruce of the state Department of
Environmental Quality. ``They think bugs are insects.''
``Oh,'' Powars said. ``Fossils. Critters.''
``What do you do with all this information?'' asked the mother.
``In the coastal plain of Virginia, there are aquifers stacked one of top of
the other, under the ground,'' Bruce said. ``The aquifers are controlled by
the geology. We need to know, from spot to spot, what the geology is so we
know about the aquifers. We're in the process of constructing a mathematical
groundwater flow model.''
Just then, another core came up out of the ground. ``Just think,'' said the
driller. ``No human ever saw that.''
Watkins Elementary School sits right where the crater scientists shot a
seismic line a couple years ago. The line, from the NASA core hole to near
the James River, took an underground reflection picture of ground layers
across the Peninsula, sort of like an ultrasound. In mid-September,
scientists will shoot a seismic line across the crater rim in Mathews
The core hole had turned up no good water sources, not exactly what Newport
News wanted to hear. Information on the ability of the ground to transport
water will come later, after hydrologists analyze the permeability of the
core and study its salt content.
``Have you come up with any surprises?'' the grandmother asked, and Bruce
said, ``There are always surprises.''
``Ready?'' asked Karl Dydak, tube in hand. ``Set, go.''
Roger Moberg eyed his wristwatch, while Dydak kept an eye on the gallon jug
that was filling with water.
``Ready, stop,'' Dydak said, pulling the tube out of the jug.
``Thirty-five point three two,'' Moberg said, and Dydak punched the numbers
on a calculator.
``One seven,'' he said.
``Still?'' Moberg asked.
``Yeah.'' And Dydak poured the water out of the jug onto the ground.
For three days in August, the two hydrologic technicians had been watching
water trickle out of a deep well into a tube, into a five-gallon bucket,
then onto the ground at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife
Refuge at Kiptopeake. It had been running steady at 1.7 gallons a minute,
running out of the crater, buried deep under the ground. They had to purge
2,106 gallons before taking samples.
The water had stained the white bucket orange. It was slowly killing the
plants on the ground. It fizzed like soda pop.
The samples will help scientists figure out why the water from the
1,300-foot well is so salty, where the salt came from, where it is going,
how long it has been there.
``So this is the one that's saltier than seawater, that's got everybody
speculating,'' said Ward Sanford, a hydrogeologist from the U.S. Geological
Survey in Reston.
``That's the stuff,'' said Randy McFarland, a USGS hydrologist from
Richmond. ``It's pretty bubbly, isn't it?''
``But it doesn't smell bad,'' Dydak said.
``I guess,'' McFarland said, ``methane doesn't have a smell.''
Of all the oddities the buried crater has produced -- earthquakes, land
subsidence, salty groundwater -- this is one of the strangest. Trapped in
the water underground is methane, a colorless, odorless gas that seeps into
basements on the western edge of the crater, and effervesces out of the
water like Perrier near the crater's center. Methane is formed by the
decomposition of organic matter. It came, possibly, from the prehistoric
sharks and camels and plants that were swept into the crater by tsunamis
that scoured as far as the Blue Ridge Mountains and then rushed back into
the great empty hole in the sea floor.
Methane was found in a research well in Mathews County at 8 parts per
million. It may be higher at Kiptopeake. In the mornings, after the well had
built up pressure overnight, the fizz was like steam coming off the water,
The water coming out of the well may have been trapped in the crater for 35
million years, through warm periods when it was undersea and the shoreline
was at present-day Richmond, and through ice ages when sea level dropped and
left the impact site dry.
The implications for Hampton Roads are great. The crater lies under the
Chesapeake Bay, centered on Cape Charles at the tip of the Eastern Shore.
The land for miles around it -- under the major cities -- was faulted and
disrupted. The underground aquifers that carry fresh water from the fall
line at Richmond to the sea were destroyed by the impact.
The water comes out at 76 degrees, warmer at the bottom of the well than at
the top, because it is closer to the center of the Earth. It has enough salt
to be called a brine. And it has something else.
``This has sort of a strange odor to it, almost a petroleum smell,''
Sanford peered into the bucket. ``We could light a match and find out,'' he
said, and everyone laughed, but no one lit a match.
Labs around the country were waiting for water samples from Kiptopeake,
ready to test for helium, argon, neon, sulfur hexafloride, hydrogen, oxygen,
sulfate isotopes and more.
The goal in the sampling was to capture the well water in the condition it
was in underground, without it touching the atmosphere. Some of the samples
had to be sealed in bottles with absolutely no air bubbles inside. Air
bubbles would allow dissolved gases, released from underground pressure, to
escape, as they were doing in the effervescence. But as they fizzed out,
they created their own bubbles.
Bottles broke, bubbles formed, stoppers popped. But finally, after four
hours, the sampling was done.
``Surprising that it took this long,'' Dydak said. ``But after 35 million
years, I guess an hour longer doesn't matter.''
The ultimate goal of the USGS is to core 4,000 to 5,000 feet deep in the
center of the crater, near Cape Charles. Drilling alone would cost $1.5
million, said project chief Greg S. Gohn, so a consortium of agencies and
funding sources would be needed.
Virginia Tech is already working on a jointly funded proposal that would go
hand-in-hand with the deep hole. John Hole, an associate professor of
geological sciences, and three colleagues from around the country want to do
three-dimensional seismic imaging of the bedrock underneath the crater, to
see how the impact affected Earth's crust.
Ideally, the study would go down the Eastern Shore and cross to the
Peninsula, he said, using special trucks that lift off the ground on
hydraulic pads and then send vibrations deep into the Earth. The proposal
has not been funded, he cautioned, and any work would be at least two years
The crater has generated so much interest that a live television broadcast,
sent to public TV stations around the country, will take place on Oct. 9.
Scientists involved in the crater research will gather in Mathews County for
the educational presentation.
``People are very interested in this, not only because it's a very cool
thing that happened but because it relates to their groundwater,'' Powars
said. ``You know, what I'm having more fun with is the bottom line: Is it
going to happen again? Yes. The only thing we don't know is when. We'd
better start learning about the effects. What's covering the planet?
Two-thirds water. So it's going to be an oceanic impact. Over half the
population of the world lives in harm's way, on lowland coastal regions. And
where are you going to study that? Right here.''
Scientists are already watching the skies for asteroids that could cross
Earth's orbit. Some have suggested that explosives could nudge those on a
collision course out of the way.
``It's pretty wild to think we're worried now about space debris,'' Powars
said, ``but just a few years ago we didn't think anything ever hit the
planet at all. You go, wow. Wow!''
Copyright 1993-2002, HamptonRoads.com
(6) AND FINALLY: WE JUST HOLD OUR LIQUOR BETTER :-)
>From Ananova, 17 September 2002
Genes may be reason for Jews' low alcoholism rate
Genes, and not religious conviction, explain why Jewish people typically
have fewer drink problems than non-Jews. Researchers in the US say a genetic
mutation carried by at least a fifth of Jews appears to protect against
alcoholism. The same inherited trait is fairly common in Asian people, but
is much rarer in white Europeans. The Daily Telegraph says the findings
could help explain why Israel has one of the lowest levels of alcoholism in
the developed world......
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'BALL OF FIRE' HITS SRI LANKA
>From Bob Kobres <email@example.com>
News.com, 17 September 2002
Meteorite hits Sri Lanka: report
>From correspondents in Colombo, Sri Lanka
September 17, 2002
A suspected meteorite crashed in a ball of fire in Sri Lanka, burning down
trees and scattering particles over a celebrated giant rock, officials and
Residents of Dimbulagala, 220km north of Colombo, reported "a strange light
which they had seen descending from the sky" three weeks ago, said Parakrama
Beligammana, the chief state administrative officer in the region.
He travelled on Sunday to the city, where he said trees had been burnt down
and particles from what seemed to be a meteorite were scattered over half a
The pieces fell on a famous 4km rock that is home to an ancient Buddhist
The particles "were quite heavy because of its high density and were
bluish-black in colour", Beligammana said.
Chandana Jayaratne, a senior physics lecturer at Colombo University, said he
was looking at the particles and that if they are confirmed to be from a
meteorite they will be sent for verification to the US space agency NASA.
"They look like particles from a meteorite but until the tests are done
nothing can be said," Jayaratne told AFP.
Beligammana said it was unlikely the trees were burnt by bushfire because
they were on the centre of the rock where fires are difficult to spread.
Dimbulagala, home to 73,000 people of the majority Sinhalese community, has
over the years come under heavy attack by Tamil Tiger rebels.
But the government and the guerrillas have been observing a truce since
February 23 and yesterday opened historic peace talks in Thailand.
This report appears on news.com.au.
CLIMATIC CHANGE AND WITCH-HUNTING: THE IMPACT OF THE LITTLE
ICE AGE ON
By Wolfgang Behringer
On 3 August 1562 a thunderstorm hit central Europe. At noon the heaven
darkened as if it were night and a severe storm began, destroying roofs and
windows. After some hours the thunderstorm turned into a hailstorm, lasting
until midnight, destroying crops and vineyards, and killing birds and other
animals, including some unprotected horses and cows. The next day trees
without leaves and branches could be seen, the fields were a picture of
devastation (Warhafftiger und gruendlicher Bericht, 1562). Travellers
recognized the unusual strength of the hailstorm. A nobleman, riding from
Vienna to Brussels, reported that he had seen the severe damage throughout
the postal route (Weyer 1586, 189). The meteorological front must have
covered an area of several hundred kilometers in diameter. A printed
newsletter reported that many people feared the beginning of the last
Since observers of the period had no memory of similar climatic disasters
"for a 100 years", many considered this thunderstorm as "unnatural" and
looked for explanations. Three possible interpretations arose: The hailstorm
could be a sign of God, a work of the devil, or a result of witchcraft.
Though a number of decisions of councils since the early middle ages had
anathemized the idea of weathermaking by human beings, there had always been
reluctance to accept this negation of human influence on the climate. In my
article I want to propose, that it was the influence of the climatic
deterioration known as the Little Ice Age, which contributed decisively to
the development of a new species of crime, which was previously rarely
accepted by the authorities: Witchcraft.
Unfortunately, the concept of the Little Ice Age seems not yet well defined.
Since its invention by F. E. Matthes in 1939 its proposed endurance has
shrunk to an epoch between 1300 and 1860 (LeRoy Ladurie 1971; Lamb 1981).
Some scholars suggested that the beginning of the Little Ice Age occurred
around 1430 (Webb 1980) and ended around 1770 (Ladurie 1971), well aware of
the fact that the period of more than 550 years of coldness was interrupted
several times by warmer periods. Christian Pfister identified a core phase
of the Little Ice Age between 1570 and 1630 (Grindelwald-Schwankung). Since
all researchers based their periodisations upon indicators drawn from
physical environment (dendrochronology, glaciology, etc.), in my essay I
want to propose another approach. My suggestion is to take into account the
subjective factor and consider human reactions to climatic changes as an
important indicator for an assessment of the beginning, the periodisation,
and the end of the Little Ice Age.
Though persecutions for heresy were known already in high medieval Europe
(Moore 1987), persecutions of inner enemies for their supposed influence on
the physical environment began around 1300 (Pfister 1996), when lepers and
jews collectively were made responsible for the return of the Black Death,
especially after the europe-wide epidemics of 1348-1350, and subsequent
epidemies of the later 14th century (Graus 1987). During these decades, when
a sequence of cold and long winters indicated the return of Little Ice Age
conditions the interdependance between climatic factors, crop-failure, rise
in prices, hunger and the outbreak of epidemics, and the classical pattern
of subsistence crises of Old Europe became more visible. Thus attention
shifted from epidemics to weather, and it is striking to see that the
gradual emergence of a new crime was closely connected to the waves of
climatic hardship during the earlier phases of the Little Ice Age (Pfister
Though witchcraft in popular imagination has traditionally been seen as one
of the major causes for hailstorms (Gesemann 1913; Fiedler 1931; Blöcker
1982), christian theological authorities in early and high middle ages had
refused to accept such accusations (Agobard of Lyon; Hoffmann 1907). It was
only in the 1380ies that magic and weather-making in inquisitorial trials
became increasingly prominent. During the 1430ies the first systematical
witch-hunts occured in some Alpine valleys of the duchy of Savoy by papal
Inquisitors and secular judges in the Dauphiné and parts of Switzerland
(Blauert 1989). During the 1480ies the image of the weathermaking witch was
finally accepted by the church. Urged by the Alsatian dominican friar
Heinrich Kramer, Pope Innocence VIII. in 1484 acknowledged weathermaking as
a reality in his bull Summis desiderantes affectibus. Kramer himself tried
to incite witch-hunts for religious purposes, using the popular demands for
eradication of the suspected witches who were made responsible for the
destruction of the harvests. Kramer summarized this ideas in his notorious
Malleus maleficarum, the Witches Hammer (Hansen 1900). Between the 1480ies
and the 1520ies there were endemic witch-hunts in parts of central and
southern Europe, still confined to Italian, French and Swiss Alpine valleys,
parts of the French and Spanish Pyrenees, Southwestern Germany, and the
Rhine Valley down to the Netherlands.
Harsh criticism of the practice of the Inquisition by humanists like Erasmus
of Rotterdam, Andrea Alciati, or Agrippa von Nettesheim, and the beginning
Reformation stopped these inquisitorial witchcraft persecutions. Even the
Spanish Inquisition forbade to use the Witches Hammer as an authority und
suppressed local witch trials. The Imperial Law, the Constitutio Criminalis
Carolina of 1532, ignored the supposed crime of witchcraft (Hexerei)
altogether, imposing sanctions only against the traditional crime of sorcery
(Zauberei), strictly limiting the judicial procedure to ordinary measures
(processus ordinarius) which made accusations of weather-making almost
unprovable. Many contemporaries therefore considered times of witchcraft
persecutions as being over, part of the past or of dark pre-reformatory
times (Weyer 1563, preface).
This was the situation when the impact of the Little Ice Age began to be
felt again. Contemporary chroniclers like Johan Jacob Wick from Zurich
reported that the summer 1560 was unusually wet. The following winter was
the coldest and longest winter since 1515/16. For the first time since
generations large Alpine lakes like the Lake Constance (Bodensee) froze
("Seegfrörni") and the vegetation period shortened decisevely (Pfister 1988,
68). The following winter 1561/1562 was not only of similar coldness, but
surprising with its immense snowfall mentioned in a broadsheet printed in
Leipzig 1562. According to an orthodox Lutheran theology these events were
interpreted as signs of God who was thought to be furious due to the sins of
the people (Uber die grossen und erschrecklichen Zeichen am Himmel 1562).
The coincidence of coldness and wetness struck the agrarian-based society
and damaged the harvest. An increase of prices deteriorated the living
conditions of the poorer people (Pfister 1988, 118-127). During the spring
and summer of 1562 thaw and heavy rainfall caused inundations in different
parts of Germany, poisoned the fields and led to cattle diseases, rising
infant mortality and the outbreak of epidemics.
The unusually severe thunderstorm hit Central Europe on 3. August 1562 in a
state of progressive sensibilisation for meteorological events. Though most
theologians - lutheran as well as catholic or calvinist - still blamed the
sinful people for having caused gods fury, under the pressure of
meteorological desaster this traditional embankment began to collapse
(Midelfort 1972). While the larger territories and Imperial Cities remained
stable, small political entities turned out to be more susceptible to the
popular demands for witchcraft persecution. In the small barony Illereichen
the pesants made their count, who never before had tried a case of
witchcraft, uncertain by means of demonstrations and petitions. Finally
count Rechberg conceded to imprison some women suspected for weathermaking,
having caused crop-failure, inundations, and cattle disease. Here and
elsewhere the mechanism of torture, confession, and denunciation led to an
extension from singular cases to witch-hunts. The largest hunt occurred in
the small territory of Wiesensteig, belonging to the Lutheran counts of
Helfenstein, where within a year 63 women were burned as witches. Since a
contemporary newsletter reported over this event, the witch-hunt became
well-known throughout the Empire (Warhafftige und Erschreckhenliche Thatten
The Wiesensteig witch-hunt served as an example for radical eradication of
"the evil", and between 1562 and 1565 an interesting debate emerged about
the possibility of weather-making. In the small Imperial City Esslingen the
populistic evangelical preacher Thomas Naogeorgus supported the popular
demands for witch-hunts and urged the magistrate to extend its persecution,
which had already begun, as a kind of regulation of the weather (Jerouschek
1992, 73-88). At the same time in Stuttgart, the capital of the duchy of
Württemberg, the lutheran orthodoxy had managed to stop the local
witchcraft-persecutions after one burning. The leading theologians of the
territory, Matthäus Alber and Wilhelm Bidenbach, bitterly attacked
Naogeorgus and his idea that witches could be responsible for hailstorms or
other meteorological events. In accordance with Württembergs reformator
Johannes Brenz, who had given a similar sermon on hailstorms before, they
insisted that only God was responsible for the weather, and not human
beings. On the other hand, they agreed in principle that witches should be
condemned to death due to their compact with the devil as a spiritual crime
of utmost severity (Alber/Bidembach 1562).
The debate on weather-making witches escalated when Johann Weyer, the
Erasmian court physician of duke Wilhelm of Jülich-Kleve, attacked Johann
Brenz and his followers for their inconsequence. In his famous volume De
praestigiis daemonum, written as a response to the resumption of
witch-burning, Weyer argued that witchcraft as a crime was physically
impossible and the performance of witch-trials in general and for
weather-magic in particular was a bad mistake (Weyer 1563; Weyer 1586,
182-192). He agreed with Brenz that it was impossible for witches to change
the course of nature. But if witches by definition could not at all be
responsible for hailstorms, as Brenz and the Lutherans conceded, then why
should they be punished? Even if they wished to do harm, according to the
Imperial Law Code it was not possible to impose capital punishment. There
was no article which defined spiritual deviance as a capital crime. So Weyer
asked Brenz as opinion leader of the orthodox Lutherans to change his
attitude. After a negative reply by Brenz, whose sermon on hailstorms was
reprinted twice in 1564 and 1565 (Predigt vom Hagel, Donner und allem
Ungewitter, 1565), Johann Weyer published their correspondence in the
1565-edition of his book and accused the famous reformer of injustice and
bloodthirsty cruelty, a reproach ususally uttered against dominican
Inquisitors (Weyer 1586, 485-502).
The resumption of witch-hunting in the 1560ies was accompanied by a debate
about weather-making, because this was the most important charge against
suspected witches. Though witches were certainly made responsible for all
kinds of bad luck, in an agrarian society weather is especially important.
Crop failure caused increases in prices, malnutrition, rising infant
mortality, and finally epidemics. Through sources we can observe that while
individual "unnatural" accidents resulted in individual accusations of
witchcraft, in case of "unnatural" weather and collective damage whole
peasant communities demanded persecution. In comparison to individual
accusations, which tended to lead to trials against individual suspects,
collective demands for persecution - when accepted by the authorities -
regularly resulted in large-scale witch-hunts (Behringer 1995). Without
going into details, the fundamental interdependance of meteorological
desaster, crop failure, and a popular demand for witch-hunts can be
demonstrated by two further examples: the largest witch-hunt of the
sixteenth century, and the largest witch-hunt of the seventeenth century,
which occurred between 1626-1630 and was the climax of European witchcraft
persecutions. The mechanisms detected in the background of these
persecutions can be applied to all large witchcraft persecutions in
Starting in the 1560ies a series of witch-panics shook the European
societies, followed by attempts to legalise witchcraft persecutions (e.g.
the English and Scottish witchcraft statutes of 1563). After the initial
witch-hunts of 1562/63 a wave of persecutions followed the hunger crisis of
the years around 1570 (Bidembach 1570), resulting from the catastrophic
coldness of the previous two years (Pfister 1988, 119f.). But a totally new
persecutory zeal can be observed during the 1580ies. In the end of the
1570ies crop-failure and price rise again caused a hunger crisis in parts of
central Europe (Rhode 1580) with the effect of witch-burnings in many places
(Zwo Newe Zeittung, was man für Hexen und Unholden verbrendt hat, 1580).
After 1580 the persecutions began to reach a previously unknown extent.
Between 1580 and 1620 in the Pays de Vaud, subject of the reformed Swiss
town of Berne, more than 1000 persons were burned for witchcraft (Kamber
1982). Between 1580 and 1595 more than 800 witches were burned in the duchy
of Lorraine, subject to the Catholic dukes so heavily involved in the
struggle for power in the French religious wars. If recent estimations are
true that until 1620 ca. 2.700 persons had been legally killed as witches,
this was the largest witch-hunt in European history in one territory (Briggs
1989, 67; Behringer 1998, 61). The Lorraine witch-hunts were closely
connected with those in the neighbouring prince-archbishopric of Treves
where 350 witch-burnings occured between 1581 and 1595. A local chronicler
gave an account over the reasons for that witch-hunt which was the biggest
one in German-speaking territories in the 16th century. Johann Linden, canon
at St. Simeon in Treves, explains in his Gesta Treverorum the tremendous
persecutions under Archbishop Johann VII. von Schönenberg (gov. 1581-1599)
"Hardly any of the Archbishops governed their diocese with such hardship,
such sorrows and such extreme difficulties as Johann (...). During the whole
period he had to endure with his subjects a continuous lack of grain, the
rigours of climate and crop failure. Only two of the nineteen years were
fertile, the years 1584 and 1590 (...). Since everybody thought that the
continuous crop-failure was caused by witches from devilish hate, the whole
country stood up for their eradication ..." (Behringer 1988). Until recently
this explanation was not taken seriously, but new research demonstrates that
the persecution was indeed not only demanded but also organized by the
population. Since the legal administration of the territory was rather
inefficient and the officials were reluctant to persecution, village
committees began to extend their competence and organized the witch-hunts
themselves. Elected committees collected informations, captured and tried
the suspected persons, and delivered them to the authorities only after they
had already confessed. The persecution thus resembled a popular uprising
where the people usurpated functions usually reserved to state authorities.
It was only in 1591, when the popular acceptance of the persecution in the
Archbishopric declined, that the Electoral Prince tried to deprive the local
committees of their power and to recover authority (Rummel 1991). A woodcut
on a contemporaneous broadsheet gives an impresson of the reason for these
persecutions: It shows a panoramatic landscape with three tremendous
thunderstorms, coming down on villages and fields while witches are flying
through the air, casting their spells (Sigfriedus, sine dato, ca. 1590).
Similary a 1590 printed broadsheet about the witch-hunt in Southern Germany
reads like a collection of meteorological desasters and their consequences
on physical and mental health (Erweytterte Unholden Zeyttung 1590).
Traditional historical explanations certainly drew on the impact of the
counter-reformation during these years, but it seems necessary to mention
that since 1586 the long and cold winters were complemented by cold and wet
springs and summers, thus causing hunger and epidemics and creating an
enormous psychological stress among the contemporaries. In 1586 the famous
news-collection of the Fuggers (Fugger-Zeitungen) reported explicitly of a
"great fear" among the people, a term which reminds us of "la grand peur" in
advance of the French Revolution. The beginning witch-hunts indeed grew into
revolutionary dimensions, involving for the first time members of the ruling
oligarchies: magistrates as well as clerics or noblemen (Behringer 1988).
Unlike the hunger-crisis of 1570, the crisis of the 1580ies carried on for
ten or more years. Socio-economic explanations of the crises pointed out
that since the 1560ies a general decline of living standards was due to a
conflict between the demographic movement, continuous population growth on
the one hand, and the narrowing of food supply by reasons of ecological
crisis on the other side (Pfister 1988, 2nd book). In addition, in the
vine-growing areas of Central Europe, from Hungary, Austria, Switzerland,
Germany into Northern France, there was a permanent decline of income due to
the deterioration of wine harvests (see Landsteiner, this volume).
Basket-of-goods-calculations on the basis of statistical data of the
Imperial City Augsburg have demonstrated that since 1586 an average
craftsman with a familiy of four was no longer able to achieve the necessary
living costs without help from other members of his family (Saalfeld 1971).
The socio-economic desaster affected the society as a whole. But
meteorological disfavour was hardest felt in the disadvantaged areas like
the Bernese highlands, the scottish highlands, the mountaineous regions of
Lorraine, the Archbishopric Treves, the Alsatian Vosges or the Ardennes in
Northern France. It was foremost in these regions that the growing of
cereals or wine was in danger through increasing wetness, decreasing
temperature, shortening vegetation periods, and the enhanced frequency of
hailstorms. Since 1586 the impact of a series of cold and prolonged winters
was sharpened by a period of wet and cold springs and summers. In
Switzerland in 1587 snow covered the surface until late spring, snowfall
returned on the 4th of July down to 400 meter (Schweizer Mittelland), and
again in the middle of September. 1588, when the invincible Armada failed in
heavy storms, was one of the most rainy years in history. Swiss chronicler
Renward Cysat reports, that there were severe thunderstorms starting in June
almost every day (Pfister 1988). It was during these two years that
witchcraft accusations reached their climax in England and France, while the
large-scale witch-hunts in Scotland and Germany started (Behringer 1998).
The synchronicity of accusations and persecutions in these far-away
countries, not connected by dynastic, confessional, economic or other links,
demonstrates the importance of the climatic factor climate for explanation.
It can be shown from many individual witch-trials that meteorological events
contributed decisively to many individual suspicions and accusations, and as
we know now from climatic history, these events often had super-local,
super-regional, or "super-national" character. Areas of low pressure could
cover large regions; the advance of arctic air could harm at least the
northern part of the continent or even the northern hemisphere. What we can
learn from this is that contemporary lamentation about decrasing
fruitfulness of the fields, of the cattle, and even of men where far from
being just rethoric devices, but rested on empirical observation (Lehmann
1986). The rising tide of demonological literature did in no way ridicule
such lamentations, but was written by members of the contemporary élites
like the famous French jurist Jean Bodin, the suffragan bishop of Treves
Peter Binsfeld, the chief public prosecutor of Lorraine Nicolas Rémy, or the
king of Scotland James VI. who was about to become James I. of England. They
all shared the idea that witches could be responsible for the weather
theologically based on the theory that on the basis of the evil compact, the
devil could exercise his wishes (Clark 1996).
According to the status of scientific theory, however, these demonologists
did not draw their theories from dogma, but from experience. James in 1590
had suffered severe storms during his return from Denmark and had
interpreted the "unnatural" dangers as an attack by evil powers. In his
Daemonologie, in forme of a dialoge this calvinist monarch claimed, that
witches "can raise storms and tempests in the air either upon the sea or
land, though not universally, but in such a particular place and prescribed
bounds, as God will permit them so to trouble. which likewise is very easy
to be discerned from any other natural tempests that are not natures, in
respect to the sudden and violent raising thereof, together with the short
enduring of the same. And this is likewise very possible to their master to
do" (James VI. 1597, 46.- Larner 1984, 3-22). Rémy, like an ethnographer,
reported detailed weather-magic from Lorraine witch trials: the trials, he
himself had performed. Binsfeld certainly accentuated theological reasons
but his best arguments were the empirical dates from his persecution in the
prince-bishopric of Treves (Binsfeld 1589; Rémy 1595).
In the end of the sixteenth century some European countries managed to
escape the circle of witch belief and witchcraft persecution, since the
élites of consolidated territorial states stopped to feel endangered and
were strong enough to suppress popular demands for witch-hunts (Behringer
1998). In Central Europe however, where demographic pressure and economic
depression lingered on, unstable governments were prone to new demands for
persecution with every change due to the Little Ice Age. Large-scale
witch-hunts were for instance performed in Burgundy and some ecclesiastical
territories in Germany around 1600 (Ein warhaffte Zeittung 1603; Schopff
1603), in the Basque region and parts of Germany between 1608-1612 (Hossmann
1612), and in Franconia between 1616-1618. Contemporary court records and
broadsheets tell us about the importance of meteorological events as
triggering factors in the background of these persecutions (Zwo
Hexenzeitung. Die erste aus dem Bisthumb Würzburg, 1616; Hossmann 1618).
During the third decade of the 17th century when the Thirty Years War
occupied the governing élites the organized witch-hunts in the
ecclesiastical territories of the Empire reached their peak. The climax of
witch-hunting again coincided with some extraordinarily dramatic
Again it seems necessary to accept accounts in contemporary reports, which
almost never connected the pogromes with war, confessional strife,
state-building, changes in the medical or judicial system, gender relations,
or whatever historians might imagine. Instead, court records dwell upon
disease and death of children and cattle, destruction of crops and
vineyards. Chroniclers relate these individual misfortunes to more general
meteorological developments. And historians of climate must confirm their
observations, in general as well as in particular. The 1620ies were
characterized through long and cold winters, late springs, cold and wet
summers, and autumns, leading to crop-failure and increases in prices. Into
this atmosphere of enhanced tension broke a climatic event of unusual
severity, In 1626, during the last week of May, in the middle of the
vegetation period, winter returned. Temperatures declined to a degree, lakes
and rivers freezed, and trees and bushes lost their leaves. Severe frost
destroyed the cereals and the grapes, and in some areas even the grapevines.
As Christian Pfister points out this was an unparalleld event within the
last 500 years. This uniqueness und of course the devastating effect of the
climatic anomaly affirmed contemporaries in their impression that it was an
"unnatural" event, caused by evil human agents in alliance with demonic
Diaries allow introspection into the subjective perception of this
particular climax of the Little Ice Age. The unexpected return of winter
caused panic and anxiety among the peasants who could not remember ever
experiencing such destruction of their fields. Again the interpretation of
an "unnatural" climate emerged. And again the consequence was the search for
scapegoats. A chronicler in the Franconian town Zeil reported: "Anno 1626
the 27th of May, all the vineyards were totally destroyed by frost within
the prince-bishoprics of Bamberg and Würzburg, same as the dear grain which
had already flourished. ... Everything frozen which had not happened as long
as one could remember. And it caused a big rise in prices ... As a result
pleading and begging began among the rabble, questioning why the authorities
continued to tolerate the witches and sorcerers destruction of the crops.
Thus the prince-bishop punished these crimes, and the persecution began in
this year ...". Broadsheets of the following years demostrate the supposed
responsibility of the witches for the particularly severe frosts in May
1626, adding later events like hailstorms, cattle diseases and epidemics
(Hesselbach 1627; Druten Zeitung 1627). Confessions under torture claimed to
have detected the devilish plan to destroy vineyards and grains for several
years in order to create hunger and disease at an extent that people would
be forced to cannibalize each other. Only the drastic measures of the
authorities stopped these attempts. And the measures were indeed dramatical.
In the tiny prince-hishopric of Bamberg, 600 persons were burned for
suspected witchcraft (Kurtzer und wahrhafftiger Bericht und erschreckliche
Neue Zeitung von sechshundert Hexen 1629), in the neighbouring
prince-bishopric Würzburg 900, in Electorate Mainz 900, and under the rule
of prince-archbishop and Elector Ferdinand of Cologne in the Rhineland and
Westphalia nearly 2.000.
All these prince-bishoprics were rather weak political structures. The
Archbishop of Cologne for instance had mortgaged almost all his high courts
to local nobles as a compensation for debts. Like the previous two
generations, they were still prone to the persecutory demands of their
peasant communities. While larger towns like Amsterdam, or Hamburg, Venice,
or Vienna never developped any persecutory zeal against witches, and the
larger and more stable territories with their complex administrative
structures like France, or in the Empire territories like the Palatinate,
Württemberg, Bavaria, Saxony, Austria, etc. refused to participate in the
big witch-killing, many independant feudal lords, small counts,
prince-abbots or rural towns supported the persecutions, sharing the
superstitious beliefs of their peasants. The agrarian segment of society
which was most directly affected by climatic deterioration could decide
through self-administered justice about the procedure of scape-goating.
In large regions Europe the interdependance between climate and
witch-hunting remained intact until the era of Enlightenment. During the
well-known climax of the Little Ice Age witchcraft in the late 17th century
persecutions were reached its climax in Austria, the Baltic region and
Scandinavia, and only in the first decades of the 18th century in Eastern
European countries like Poland or Hungary (see the statistics in:
Ankarloo/Henningsen 1987/1990). In parts of Central Europa every
little-ice-age-year lead to an increase of witch trials or even waves of
persecution. So it is more than a mere metaphor that the sun of the
Enlightenment ended the era of witch-hunting (Behringer 1995). From the
1730ies on the climate - though cold - indeed was more stable than during
the decades before. Only in some backward areas of Germany, France, and
Austria, witch-trials were performed into the 1740ies and in southwestern
Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, and Poland into the 1770ies.
The Age of Witch-Hunting thus seems pretty congruent with the era of the
Little Ice Age. The peaks of the persecution coincide with the critical
points of climatic deterioration. Witches traditionally had been held
responsible for bad weather which was so dangerous for the precarious
agriculture of the pre-industrial period. But it was only in the 15th
century that ecclesiastical and secular authorities accepted the reality of
that crime. The 1420ies, the 1450ies, and the last two decades of the
fifteenth century, well known in the history of climate, were decisive years
in which secular and ecclesiastical authorities increasingly accepted the
existence of weather-making witches. During the "cumulative sequences of
coldness" in the years 1560-1574, 1583-1589 and 1623-1630, again 1678-1698
(Pfister 1988, 150) people demanded the eradication of the witches whom they
held responsible for climatic aberrations. Obviously it was the impact of
the Little Ice Age which increased the pressure from below and made parts of
the intellectual élites believe in the existence of witchcraft. So it is
possible to say: witchcraft was the unique crime of the Little Ice Age.
The witch-hunts of the early modern period were continuously accompanied by
discussions about theological interpretations and natural reasons of
meteorological events (Alber/Bidembach 1562; Weyer 1563; Sigwart 1602;
Schopff 1603; Hossmann 1612; Sigwart 1613). Although the theological
discussions followed their own logic, I would like to suggest that the
discussion about witchcraft influenced the emerging science of meteorology.
During the last three decades of the fifteenth century, the question
regarding the possibility to influence the weather by means of witchcraft
counted among the most prominent topics of demonology. The Malleus
maleficarum propagated the idea that hailstorms could be caused by witches
though only with the help of demons and the permission of God. Opponents of
these ideas, like Ulrich Molitoris in his famous and often reprinted De
laniis et phitonicis mulieribus, though containing the first woodcuts of
weathermaking witches, flatly denied the posssibility of artificial
influence on the weather. Since this topic was the center of Molitors
argumentation, his treatise could be seen as one of the first printed books
about weather. It is important to notice that the new science of meteorology
emerged in the context of an ardent theological and demonological debate
about the origins of the weather. In the beginning of the 16th century this
debate was shaped by an Opusculum de sagis maleficis of the nominalist
theologian Martin Plantsch at the university of Tübingen who excluded demons
from meteorology (Plantsch 1507).
When early meteorological treatises like the Nurenberg book Von warer
erkantnus des Wetters (Of true knowledge about the weather), avoid any
allusion to witchcraft and the demonological debate this provides an
implicit comment on the ongoing demonological debate. This publication of an
otherwise little known author, Leonhard Reynmann, contributed with its 17
reprints since 1505 enormously to the secularisation and rationalisation of
the topic. In Nuremberg with its strong humanist patriciate the possibility
of weathermaking witches was traditionally ridiculed. Though the Imperial
City like Swiss or Italian City republics owned a considerable rural
territory, nobody was burned there for suspected witchcraft during the 15th
and 16th centuries. The councillor Willibald Pirckheimer ridiculed dominican
Inquisitors and witch-beliefs in his satires. His friend Albrecht Dürer
produced woodcuts treating the topic as a secularised subject for presenting
attractive naked women, and even the Poet Hans Sachs exposed witch-belief as
a bad dream or demonic illusion without material reality.
Two out of thirteen chapters in Reynmanns book, which since 1514 was simply
titelled Wetterbüchlein (weather book), discussed exclusively the natural
causes of thunder- and hailstorms. While preachers of all denominatios
talked into the 18th century about demonic causes of climate, they mostly
denied the possibility of witchcraft (Dilherr 1652; Ganshorn 1672;
Stoeltzlin 1692). After the age of the Witches Hammer a tradition of
exclusively secular explanations tried to find an escape from the dangerous
paradigm of scapegoating by simply neglecting demonological items. The
lesson to be learned in the sixteenth century that only God or nature were
responsible for major changes of the climate, seems still of actuality in
our time where in the eyes of many ecological sins substituted the moral
sins of the confessional ages. From the era of the Little Ice Age we should
learn the danger of agitating eschatological fears connected with climatic
CCCMENU CCC for 2002