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Roanoke Island
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Hi, I'm Dave Thurlow for the Weather Notebook. The first English people to settle in North America had a rough go of things. One group settled on Roanoke Island, in the Tidewater area of Virginia, around 1560. But the last record of the group is only 27 years later, in 1587.

   
Tree-ring evidence suggests worst droughts in 800 years led to settlements' decline. The William & Mary News
Historians have studied the Lost Colony of Roanoke for many years. Now a group of scientists think they've figured out why the colonists disappeared. They're pinning the blame on drought-the worst dry spell of the past 800 years across the mid-Atlantic. The new results come from a science called dendroclimatology. That's the practice of using tree rings to learn about long-term temperature and rainfall patterns. A group of dendroclimatologists at the University of Arkansas took a look at baldcypress trees in the Tidewater area. Without harming the trees, they measured the width of the tree rings for each growing season.

The scientists found that the worst three years of the mid-Atlantic drought ran from 1587 to 1589. That's precisely when the Lost Colonists turned up missing. Finding and growing food was clearly a challenge, but another hazard that faced the settlers and native Americans was the brackish water they had to drink. Because rainfall was so scarce, the natural salt of the Tidewater became concentrated, and many people died from salt poisoning.

Some historians have blamed these colonies for poor planning and even accused them of being apathetic about their own survival. But according to the new data from tree rings, even the best planned colony would have been severely tested by what could have been the biggest drought of the millennium.

Today's contributing writer is Bob Henson. Our show is produced by the Mount Washington Observatory, underwritten by Subaru, the beauty of all wheel drive, with major support provided by the National Science Foundation.