In August 2022, with Europe experiencing historic drought conditions, some social media users and news sites shared images of centuries-old, ominously-named “hunger stones.”

In summer 2022, one widely viewed tweet contained images of a stone in the Elbe River, in the city of Děčín, Czech Republic. The stone has a particularly dark inscription that appears to warn about famine. That quote, roughly translated to English, reads: “If you see me, cry”:

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“Hunger stones” are geological inscriptions found on river stones in Central Europe that serve as records of past droughts. According to Reuters, some were indeed visible in Germany’s River Rhine as of mid-August 2022, indicating drought conditions there. The above-displayed tweet, though, was misleading: The photographs of that stone in Děčín were actually taken during a different historic drought, in 2018, according to a reverse image search.

Both of the tweet’s images have appeared in articles about hunger stones published before 2022. (They can also be found on Wikipedia, on that site’s page about hunger stones, with information stating the photographs were taken in August 2018.)

According to science and technology news site Ars Technica, there are multiple carvings in the Děčín stone that serve as traces of historical droughts. Carvings in the stone commemorate droughts going all the way back to the 1400s.

But, based on our research, it was unknown whether that particular stone was visible in August 2022 and, if so, why. Ars Technica noted, “It’s actually possible to see this particular stone some 126 days out of the year, thanks to the construction of a dam that was built on a tributary of the Elbe in 1926.”

According to France-based news network Euronews, Andrea Toreti, a senior researcher for the European Commission Joint Research Centre, said during an Aug. 6, 2022, news conference that the year’s drought could be worse than 2018, which had previously been considered the worst in five centuries.

“Just to give you an idea the 2018 drought was so extreme that, looking back at least the last 500 years, there were no other events similar to the drought of 2018, but this year I think it is really worse than 2018,” Toreti said during the news conference.

Landmark rivers, including the Rhine, Thames, and Po, were receding so much that, as German news site DW noted, they were uncovering things like unexploded bombs from World War II and jeopardizing cargo ship crossings. France’s Loire river was so low that people could almost cross in some places on foot.

While it was unknown whether the Děčín stone was visible, hunger stones in other locations have emerged in 2022 due to drought conditions. The news outlet Reuters published a video on Aug. 17, 2022, showing such stones in Germany’s River Rhine exposed. The stones visible in the video commemorate droughts in 2003, 2015, and 2018.

A 2020 research paper about hunger stones published by the European Geosciences Union said they got their apocalyptic-sounding name in 1842 from a newspaper article. Before that, they were referred to with more neutral-sounding names like “milestone” or “mark.”

Sources:

Blade, Thomas. “Europe’s Drought Could Be the Worst in 500 Years, Warns Researcher.” Euronews, 10 Aug. 2022, https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/08/10/europes-drought-could-be-the-worst-in-500-years-warns-researcher.

Ouellette, Jennifer. “When Context Is Key: ‘Hunger Stones’ Go Viral, but News First Broke in 2018.” Ars Technica, 16 Aug. 2022, https://arstechnica.com/science/2022/08/viral-hunger-stones-tweet-left-out-context-original-story-was-from-2018/.

Bleiker, Carla. “Rivers across Europe Are Too Dry, Too Low and Too Warm. “DW | 10 Aug. 2022 DW.COM, https://www.dw.com/en/rivers-across-europe-are-too-dry-too-low-and-too-warm/a-62758853.

Reuters. “Germany’s Drought Uncovers Ominous ‘hunger Stones.’” 17 Aug. 2022. https://reut.rs/3SUO1n4.

Libor, Elleder, et al. “Low Water Stage Marks on Hunger Stones: Verification for the Elbe River from 1616 to 2015.” 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337088602_Low_Water_Stage_Marks_on_Hunger_Stones_Verification_for_the_Elbe_River_in_1616-2015