The year 2020 may be the worst one that most of us alive today have most likely experienced, for a whole host of reasons. But the volcanic explosions of the year 536 caused modern-day researchers to state recently that that year was definitively “the worst year to be alive” in history.
A strange and unsettling fog, which even deprived the world of the sun’s warmth, plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness — both day and night — for a year and a half, starting in 536, causing untold misery across the globe.
The Byzantine historian Procopius recorded at the time “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year.”
“One of the worst years to be alive”
Michael McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, says that in Europe, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods, if not the worst year to be alive.”
From core samples taken from the ice around the globe, scientists are now able to determine that temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, paving the way for the coldest decade in the past 2,300 years and ushering in famine and misery of every kind in human society.
Snow fell during that summer even in China, while crops failed all around the globe, causing mass starvation and want.
“A failure of bread”
Irish monks, chronicling the events of the times, noted tersely in their records that there was “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.”
Historians have known for some time that the middle of the sixth century was a dark time in what was once referred to as the Dark Ages; however, the strange clouds described by multiple sources over the entire world at the time posed a mystery.
But now, thanks to almost unimaginably precise analysis from a glacier in Switzerland by a team led by medieval historian Michael McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UMO) in Orono has finally found the culprit to all the human misery of 536, often described as the worst year to be alive.
Cataclysmic Icelandic volcano eruption threw world into darkness in 536
The team reported at a workshop at Harvard University this week that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland was responsible for depositing ash all across the Northern Hemisphere early in that year.
Not only that, but the initial eruption was followed by two more, in 540 and 547. These multiple assaults on the atmosphere, followed by the bubonic plague, were responsible for the economic and social degradation in Europe that lasted for almost one century, until 640.
It was only at that time, according to the researchers, that another clue in the glacial ice — a spike in lead in the atmosphere — shows there had been a resurgence of silver mining, crucial to the European economy at the time.
According to the report, published in the journal Antiquity, the new findings don’t just explain a global cooling that happened, as has been noted previously — when volcanic ash blots out the sun.
Kyle Harper, the provost and a medieval and Roman historian at the University of Oklahoma, says that the detailed proof of these natural disasters and human pollution caused by economic activity also “give us a new kind of record for understanding the concatenation of human and natural causes that led to the fall of the Roman Empire — and the earliest stirrings of this new medieval economy.”
Tree ring proof now collated with ice core samples
Back in the 1990s, studies of tree rings told researchers that something terrible had happened in the environment around the year 540 AD.
But it was just three years ago that polar ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica gave them an inkling of just how gigantic the event was — and how far-reaching its effects must have been.
Researchers have long known that volcanoes spew sulphur, bismuth and other elements into the atmosphere, causing an aerosolized “veil” to form that ends up reflecting the sun’s rays back into space, cooling the earth.
Michael Sigl, from the University of Bern, Switzerland, led a team that discovered that chemical traces of this action from ice cores could be matched with tree ring records, confirming the fact that almost every unusually cold summer over the past 2500 years followed a volcanic eruption.
At the time, the team thought that one enormous eruption — perhaps even in North America — must have occurred in late 535 or early 536, and another followed in 540.
Climate Change Institute team tested Swiss glacier ice
Sigl’s team was the first to conclude that the to cataclysmic events explained the prolonged dark and cold, which ended up triggering a spiral of economic and social chaos.
Mayewski, from UMO’s Climate Change Institute, and his interdisciplinary team, in 2013 took on the challenge of trying to identify these eruptions in an ice core drilled in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps.
The 72-meter-long core of glacial ice encapsulates more than 2000 years of fallout from volcanoes, dust storms from the Sahara, and human economic activity — right in the middle of Europe.
Using a new ultra–high-resolution method, a laser was used to carve slivers of ice that are no thicker than 120 microns. Pieces of ice this thin represent only a few days or weeks of snowfall, according to the researchers.
As many as 50,000 slices were taken from each meter of the ice core. By analyzing the slices for different elements, Majewski and his team were able to pinpoint not only volcanic eruptions, but ordinary storms as well.
The presence of lead in the atmosphere, another telltale sign of human activity, was checked for the past 2,000 years, according to UMO volcanologist Andrei Kurbatov.
Volcanic glass captured in ice in 536 AD
Intriguingly, UMaine graduate student Laura Hartman discovered two microscopic particles of volcanic glass captured in the ice core dating back to the spring of 536.
Using x-rays to determine their chemical fingerprint, Hartman and Kurbatov determined that they closely matched glass particles that had been found in lakes and peat bogs in Europe, as well as in a Greenland ice core.
Those particular bits of glass resembled volcanic rocks spewed from an Icelandic volcano. Geoscientist David Lowe of the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, posits that the chemical similarities between the glass particles in all these areas were emitted from the same Icelandic volcano.
For his part, Sigl believes that more evidence is needed before he could agree with that supposition, as he believes the eruption occurred in North America.
Wherever the volcano was situated, the winds and weather at that time back in 536 managed to force the volcanic plume all the way southeast across Europe and even into Asia, casting its spell of gloom as it “rolled through,” according to Kurbatov.
Naturally, the researchers are not quite through, continuing their quest to locate more particles from whichever volcano it was in lakes in Europe and Iceland, before they can confirm where it was situated and just why its eruption was so completely devastating.
In 640, the ice shows that the economy had recovered to the point that silver was once again being smelted; lead ore containing silver had to be melted down to obtain the precious metal, so the lead particles showed that the economy had rebounded to a point.
The rise of the merchant class as society rebounded
Archaeologist Christopher Loveluck, from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, believes that a second atmospheric lead spike, in the year 660, shows that there was a major infusion of silver into the emerging medieval economy.
The heavy use of silver suggests, he says, that gold had become scarce as trade picked up once again, forcing a shift to silver for money. And, in a crucial development of the Western world, Loveluck and his research colleagues say in the Antiquity report that this “shows the rise of the merchant class for the first time.”
Tragically, ice cores also showed the misery of another, much better-known time, that of the Black Death, which sept across the world from 1349 to 1353. Once again, lead vanished from the samples, showing that the Medieval economy had again ground to a halt during that time of enormous social and economic devastation.
“We’ve entered a new era with this ability to integrate ultra–high-resolution environmental records with similarly high resolution historical records,” Loveluck explains in the article. “It’s a real game changer.”
So, if you think you have experienced the worst year to be alive during your lifetime, you might want to think it over again, now that you know of the year 536.