PHOTOS: ‘Hunger Stones’ Emerge in Riverbed of the Elbe River in the Czech Republic Amid Drought

An ominous sign.

Hard times are coming for Europe, according to a century-old rock in the middle of the Elbe River in the Czech Republic. Known as a “hunger stone,” the rock is inscribed with the words, “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” or “If you can see me, then weep.”

The stone, roughly the size of a van, was inscribed in 1904 by a boatman whose work dried up that year when the river bed became too shallow to support boat traffic. About 20 such boulders, engraved with markers and dates going back to 1616, lie under the waters of the Elbe, a major central European waterway running from the Czech Republic through Germany to the North Sea. Plummeting river levels have exposed them.

“Over the centuries, many people earned their living on the Elbe as rafters, and when there wasn’t enough water to float their rafts, they lost their livelihoods,” said Vlastimil Pazourek, head of the museum in Decin, a town just north of Prague, where the stone appeared. “The rafters engraved the dates of those bad years on the soft sandstone boulders typical for this region, hence the name ‘hunger stone.’” The stones are being exposed again, and this time scientists say it’s not just a bad year, but a sign of an ongoing shift in water resources occurring across the globe due to climate change.

Low water levels revealed the stone and its legend this summer after the hottest summer since record-keeping began in 1775. The water level dropped to just 2.9 feet deep at the end of August after the long, hot and very dry summer, making large-scale river transport impossible. Although the riverbed has been artificially deepened to facilitate cargo transport, its water levels have continued to drop. In the 1990s, around five million tons of goods were transported on the Elbe each year, but the figure has dramatically fallen to less than a million tons in recent years due to low water. Experts say ebbing river levels will become the norm in coming years.

“Due to climate change, low river levels will be even more frequent,” said hydrology specialist Tobias Conradt. “What we consider extreme today will become an everyday reality in the decades to come.”

As the river has dried up, other bits of history are coming to the surface, including munitions from World War II. So far 22 grenades, mines and other explosives have been found in the Elbe this year. “We ascribe that to the low water level. That’s pretty clear,” said police spokeswoman Grit Merker. Police have warned people against touching the weapons, some of which are unexploded, although so corroded they present a low risk. After World War II many explosives were dumped into the Elbe, which flows from the Krkonose Mountains in the Czech Republic near the border with Poland to Hamburg in Germany’s north.

Low water levels and rising temperatures, along with pollution and overfishing, have also impacted the Elbe’s fish stocks. In an analysis of long-term data on fish stocks in the Upper Danube, Elbe, and Main rivers, a team of German researchers concluded that native fish species in these rivers are on the verge of extinction. All is not dead in the waters, however; populations of some invasive species are increasing.

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