‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ begins A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens set during the French Revolution. Scratch the first part and you are left with the worst of times over a millennium earlier.
The year is 536 AD. China has survived three hundred years of war and upheaval after the fall of the Han Dynasty and is now enjoying some stability within the Northern Wei and Southern Sung Empires.
Meanwhile in Europe the Dark Ages are descending with fall of the Roman Empire and the invasion of Huns and Visigoths from the east.
And then a volcano erupted, sparking off a catastrophic year-round winter. It even snowed during summertime in China. The next decade from 536 onwards saw disaster after disaster, including bubonic plague beginning its dreadful march across eastern Europe from Egypt in 541 AD.
‘It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,’ states Professor Michael McCormick of the year 536.
McCormick is a mediaeval historian, archaeologist and chair of the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past. He and Dr Paul Mayewski of the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine, who carried out analysis of a Swiss glacier, published their findings in November 2018 in the journal Antiquity.
Colle Gnifetti Glacier yielded over 2000 years of Earth’s atmospheric history in a seventy-two-metre ice core. Using laser technology that could pare off microscopic 120-micron samples of ancient snowfall, the team were able to pinpoint events accurately to days and weeks.
The ice section for 536 revealed sulphur, bismuth and volcanic glass had entered in the atmosphere that year, proving a massive volcanic eruption had occurred. This confirmed what was already known from a 1990s tree-ring analysis: the years around 540 where the coldest for over two millennia.
The volcanic glass in particular strongly suggested that the volcano that erupted was in Iceland, correlating with previous discoveries from Greenland glaciers and European bogs.
Ancient texts record that the sun appeared more like the moon over a period of eighteen months during which crops failed from lack of sunlight, famine raged, trade collapsed and – in the worst-case-scenario of a zombie apocalypse – lawlessness was the order of the day.
And then the volcano erupted again and then again in 540 and 547. The only good news was that mostly it was the Northern Hemisphere that was affected. The volcanic events saw a drop in the summer temperatures of 1.5–2.5 degrees Celsius in 536 with a further drop in Europe in 540 to 547 of 1.4–2.7 degrees, due to the volcanic haze blocking out the sun.
In between the second and third apocalyptic volcanic blowouts bubonic plague arrived, wiping out up to half the population of the Eastern Roman Empire on the cusp of becoming the Byzantine Empire, stretching from Turkey in the east to Syria in the west.
It took a century for Europe to recover, witnessed by the increase in lead in the atmosphere in 640, recorded for all time in the locked-in ice of the glaciers. Lead was used in silver mining, a sign that trade was once again on the rise.
Is the Worst Yet to Come?
While science has proven that 536 was the worst historical year to be alive, we are assuming that the future will not bring bigger, more catastrophic disasters. Although the events that happened nearly a millennium and a half ago were due to natural disasters, they mimic some of the potential effects of climate change.
What was not a factor in that distant past has become a factor in our present: we humans and our effect on the environment.
With the United States’ expected withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement set to take place in 2020, the future of our planet’s health is something we should all keep in mind.