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Alpine glacier reveals ecosystem impacts of Europe's prosperity and peril over the last millennium

September 23, 2021

Information about past ecosystem dynamics and human activities is stored in the ice of Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss Alps. Adverse climatic intervals incurred crop failures and famines and triggered reestablishment of forest vegetation but also societal resilience through innovation. Historical documents and lake sediments record these changes at local—regional scales but often struggle to comprehensively document continental-scale impacts on ecosystems. Here, we provide unique multiproxy evidence of broad-scale ecosystem, land use, and climate dynamics over the past millennium from a Colle Gnifetti microfossil and oxygen isotope record. Microfossil data indicate that before 1750 CE forests and fallow land rapidly replaced crop cultivation during historically documented societal crises caused by climate shifts and epidemics. Subsequently, with technology and the introduction of more resilient crops, European societies adapted to the Little Ice Age cold period, but resource overexploitation and industrialization led to new regional to global-scale environmental challenges.