Climate change-driven droughts are unearthing Earth’s secrets and artifacts

·Senior Editor
·6-min read

Regions across the world are mired in drought this summer, and the receding water levels in rivers and lakes are exposing long-hidden secrets and artifacts. Some leave a chilling warning for humanity of the devastation that climate change may bring.

Since May, three separate human bodies have been discovered in Nevada’s Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado River created by the Hoover Dam. On Wednesday, local authorities identified one of the bodies as that of Thomas Erndt, a 42-year-old man who is presumed to have drowned 20 years ago.

Speculation has swirled that the bodies may be the remains of murder victims. The first victim, found in May, had been shot in the head and stuffed in a barrel before being thrown in the lake, with some suggesting it might be the result of a Mafia hit from nearby Las Vegas. Last week, police reported that they had recovered a gun exposed near the body.

A boat with a narrow hull stands almost upright, with the remaining water of Lake Mead in the distance
A formerly sunken boat stands upright in a section of Lake Mead exposed by drought that was previously under water on Aug. 18 in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nev. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The bodies have been revealed by water in the lake dropping to what the United Nations Environment Programme warned earlier this month are “dangerously low levels.” In 1983, Lake Mead was 1,225 feet above sea level, but it is now at 1,040 feet, and only 27% of its capacity.

On Wednesday, it was reported that prints from an Acrocanthosaurus — a 15 foot-tall dinosaur that lived 13 million years ago — have recently emerged in Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, where the Paluxy River has dried up almost entirely, thanks to a drought labeled "exceptional" by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Experts attribute the remarkable spate of heat waves and severe droughts this year to climate change, noting that warmer air causes more water to evaporate and also increases drought risk in a variety of other ways, for example by reducing the snowpack.

In Europe this summer, record-breaking heat waves featuring temperatures upward of 100 degrees Fahrenheit have broiled the continent and caused thousands of deaths. France, Spain and other countries are suffering from related droughts and a wildfire season on pace to be the worst on record.

Water levels are dropping, and long-submerged artifacts are emerging.

A wrecked World War II German warship in the Danube.
Wreckage of a World War II German warship emerges in the Danube in Prahovo, Serbia, on Aug. 18. (Fedja Grulovic/Reuters)

Last week, in Serbia, a fleet of Nazi warships surfaced along the Danube River, which has fallen to its lowest level in a century. Another remnant of World War II — an unexploded bomb — appeared in Italy as the waters of the Po River receded. Fishermen discovered the American-made bomb on July 25, near the village of Borgo Virgilio in northern Italy.

Parts of Italy are suffering from the worst drought in 70 years. In the northwestern region of Lombardy, the dry bed of the Oglio river has revealed wooden stakes that have been dated to the prehistoric period ranging from 2300 to 700 BC. And in Piedmont, the Sesia, a tributary of the Po, has dropped low enough to expose the red brick ruins of a medieval bridge. In Rome, an ancient Roman bridge has reemerged due to low levels on the Tiber River.

In Germany, “hunger stones” have surfaced along the Rhine River. These are rocks with engravings commemorating famine intended to warn future generations when water levels have become dangerously low. The most recently discovered stones include dates from 1947, 1959, 2003 and 2018.

Like the Western United States, the Iberian Peninsula is the driest it has been in the last 1,200 years. In July, Spain’s hottest month in 61 years, reservoirs were at only 40% of capacity on average. That has exposed the Dolmen of Guadalperal, a prehistoric stone circle with more than 100 standing rocks that was discovered by the German archaeologist Hugo Obermaier in 1926 and dates to around 7,000 years ago. The rocks were submerged by the creation of a dam and reservoir in the 1960s. Meanwhile, north of Barcelona, an 11th-century church that disappeared into a dam in 1963 is now fully exposed.

Ancient religious artifacts are also appearing in the Middle East and East Asia.

 The newly found 3,400-year city appears like an island in the river.
An aerial view of the newly found ancient city of 3,400 years from the Mitanni Empire period in Semel district of Duhok, Iraq, on Jan. 30. (Muhammed Felah Ibrahim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In Iraq, a former city from the Mitanni Empire, which existed roughly 3,400 years ago, has been discovered in the Mosul Dam’s reservoir, which was drained so the water could save dying crops.

A severe drought and long-running heat wave in southwestern China has caused electricity supply cuts, as hydroelectric dams are lacking the water supply to operate at full capacity. In the Yangtze River, an island with three ancient Buddhist statues has appeared.

Although it hasn’t revealed any ancient wonders, East Africa is also suffering through a drought that the U.N. warns could trigger a massive famine.

Even usually wet parts of the United States are drying out. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed key parts of the Northeast as being in “severe drought.” Local farmers are feeling the heat. The New York City area TV station WNBC Channel 4 reported that crops in New Jersey are “noticeably smaller than before” because of the drought.

Intake towers at the Hoover Dam stand high above the water.
Water intake towers at the Hoover Dam stands next to a bleached "bathtub ring" on the banks of Lake Mead on Aug. 19, in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Ariz. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Since climate change disrupts the water cycle and makes droughts more frequent and severe, these conditions may not be exceptional, and may instead represent the new normal.

“The conditions in the American West which we're seeing around the Colorado River basin have been so dry for more than 20 years that we're no longer speaking of a drought,” said Lis Mullin Bernhardt, a United Nations Environment Programme ecosystems expert, said when her agency issued its dire warning about the western U.S. “We refer to it as ‘aridification’ — a new, very dry normal.”

As for how humanity will adapt to water scarcity, the signs so far are not good. Water usage restrictions are already in effect in a number of U.S. jurisdictions, including parts of California. The Colorado River is on the brink of crisis. Cape Town, South Africa, is already in such a crisis.

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