A quick glance at a history book will show you that humanity has had its fair share of dark times. According to historian and archeologist Micheal McCormick, however, the year 536 was the worst of them all.
“It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” he argues.
A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia in darkness day and night for 18 months starting that year. Temperatures in the summer fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, which began the coldest decade the world had experienced in 2300 years. Crops failed, and people starved. Irish historians record bread crops failing from 536 to 539 AD.
This was quickly followed by the bubonic plague striking the Roman port of Pelusium in 541. A third to half of the population of the eastern Roman empire collapsed as a consequence, which hastened its collapse.
Now historians have discovered what may have set off all of this misery and upheaval. By analyzing ice from a Swiss glacier, McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine have found that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere in 536, bringing darkness and climate change. Two more eruptions followed in 540 and 547. This, combined with the plague that arrived in 541 led Europe to fall into economic stagnation that lasted for nearly a century.
Scientists have also discovered how this period of economic stagnation eventually came to an end. They found a spike in airborne lead in ice samples, indicating high levels of silver mining in the subsequent years.
Mayewski and his team found all this data in a 72-meter long ice core drilled in the in the Swiss Alps in 2013. The core is host to over two millenia’s worth of fallout from volcanoes, dust storms and human activities. An ultra-high resolution method was used to decipher samples taken — about 50,000 from each meter of the core — which involved a laser carving 120-micron slivers of ice to represent just a few days of snowfall.
The breakthrough came when graduate student Laura Hartman found two shards of microscopic volcanic glass. When bombarded with X-rays, it was found that the shards closely matched volcanic rocks found in Greenland. This convinced geoscientist David Lowe of the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, that the particles found in the Swiss ice core came from an eruption in Greenland. However, some members of the team remain convinced that the eruption that covered Europe in darkness happened in North America.
Christopher Loveluck of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom has said the ability to integrate high resolution environmental records with high resolution historical records has brought humanity into a “new era”. “Its a real game changer,” he says.
These findings were published in Antiquity last week.