Harvard historian pinpoints the worst year ever to be alive — and it’s not 2018
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What launched the infamous Late Antique Little Ice Age?

Harvard historian pinpoints the worst year ever to be alive — and it’s not 2018

An international interdisciplinary team of academics discovers evidence of a catastrophic volcanic eruption on Iceland that spurred a snow-ball effect causing a whole world of pain

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • In this aerial view, fountains of lava, up to 60 meters high, spurt from a fissure in the ground on the north side of the Bardarbunga volcano in Iceland, Tuesday, September 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Stefano Di Nicolo)
    In this aerial view, fountains of lava, up to 60 meters high, spurt from a fissure in the ground on the north side of the Bardarbunga volcano in Iceland, Tuesday, September 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Stefano Di Nicolo)
  • Farmers check on their animals near Kirkjubaearklaustur 260 km (162 miles) from Reykjavík, Iceland Tuesday May 24, 2011, after the Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash high into the air that have then been carried toward the European continent on the wind. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti )
    Farmers check on their animals near Kirkjubaearklaustur 260 km (162 miles) from Reykjavík, Iceland Tuesday May 24, 2011, after the Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash high into the air that have then been carried toward the European continent on the wind. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti )
  • Illustrative: A September 15, 2003 file image of the Gorner Glacier and the Matterhorn, second peak from right, on the Swiss-Italian border. (AP Photo/Keystone, Olivier Maire. File)
    Illustrative: A September 15, 2003 file image of the Gorner Glacier and the Matterhorn, second peak from right, on the Swiss-Italian border. (AP Photo/Keystone, Olivier Maire. File)
  • A close up of lava from an eruption on Holuhraun, northwest of the Dyngjujoekull glacier in Iceland, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Eggert Johannesson)
    A close up of lava from an eruption on Holuhraun, northwest of the Dyngjujoekull glacier in Iceland, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Eggert Johannesson)
  • Highland cows are photographed as they graze in the Kilpatrick Hills near Glasgow, Scotland, March 18, 2018, as the cold snap keeps a grip of the United Kingdom. (John Linton/PA via AP)
    Highland cows are photographed as they graze in the Kilpatrick Hills near Glasgow, Scotland, March 18, 2018, as the cold snap keeps a grip of the United Kingdom. (John Linton/PA via AP)

An eerie 18-month darkness, regime change, unseasonably low temperatures and summer snow, rampant plague and overwhelming famine are just a few ways in which Harvard historian Michael McCormick pinpointed the worst year ever: 536 CE.

“It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” McCormick recently told Science Magazine.

Temperatures dropped between 1.5°C (2.7°F) and 2.5°C (4.5°F) in the summer of 536, which began a snowball effect of poor crop performance and famine. Snow fell that summer in China; there was drought in Peru. A few years later plague broke out at a Roman port in Egypt and quickly spread.

It was a series of events that is today fodder for scholars and pseudo-scholars alike. The world experienced what could only be described as a catastrophe and lived through a mini-ice age.

According to a 2016 Natural Geoscience article, “Spanning most of the Northern Hemisphere, we suggest that this cold phase be considered as an additional environmental factor contributing to the establishment of the Justinian plague, transformation of the eastern Roman Empire and collapse of the Sasanian Empire, movements out of the Asian steppe and Arabian Peninsula, spread of Slavic-speaking peoples and political upheavals in China.”

The tipping point? A volcanic eruption that covered the northern hemisphere with volcanic ash and smoke.

A close up of lava from an eruption on Holuhraun, northwest of the Dyngjujoekull glacier in Iceland, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Eggert Johannesson)

The hypothesis of a volcanic eruption is not new: Already in a 1983 edition of the Journal of Geophysical Research, NASA geoscientists Richard Stothers and Michael Rampino had discovered references to devastating volcanic eruptions at this time in four ancient texts. Later scientists analyzed tree rings and found marked disturbances centering around the year 536, but theorized the assumed eruption had taken place in North America.

But what if the volcanic eruption was much closer than scientists had previously theorized? In Iceland, rather than California.

Harvard historian McCormick, the chair of the university’s Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, also heads a multi-disciplinary team of researchers working on the Historical Ice Core Project (HICP), which recently suggested the Iceland hypothesis.

Farmers check on their animals near Kirkjubaearklaustur 260 km (162 miles) from Reykjavík, Iceland Tuesday May 24, 2011, after the Grimsvotn volcano began erupting on Saturday, sending clouds of ash high into the air that have then been carried toward the European continent on the wind. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti )

The international team is examining an ice core drilled in 2013 from the Colle Gnifetti glacier, located on the Swiss-Italian border, to understand the nexus of environment with civilization.

In the course of tracking pollution, the HICP team recently sourced Iceland as one of the worst volcanic eruptions to occur in western civilization.

Location, location, location

Iceland’s proximity to Europe gives a hitherto unknown insight into the volcano’s catastrophic fallout, say scientists.

Using hi-resolution laser technology to carefully analyze the 72m-deep Colle Gnifetti ice core, the scientists discerned volcanic “tephra” or particles released by a volcanic eruption, which they sourced to its origin in Iceland.

According to a University of Nottingham press release on the Phys.org website, “The discovery of volcanic tephra from the 536 mega-eruption in the Colle Gnifetti core, and its sourcing to Iceland, when fixing the chronology of the study, also has a profound impact on assessing very rapid climate change in Britain and Northern and Western Europe in the mid-sixth century, now referred to as the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age.'”

University of Nottingham’s Loveluck told Science, “We’ve entered a new era with this ability to integrate ultra-high-resolution environmental records with similarly high-resolution historical records… It’s a real game changer.”

In recent history, volcanic activity on Iceland has heavily impacted European and Asian air travel. In the past decade alone, the combination of smoke and grit emanating from the eruptions grounded thousands of travelers — including former US president Barack Obama at the time — and covered the continent with piles of ashy dust.

Illustrative: A September 15, 2003 file image of the Gorner Glacier and the Matterhorn, second peak from right, on the Swiss-Italian border. (AP Photo/Keystone, Olivier Maire. File)

According to Loveluck, the fact that the volcanic particles came from Iceland and not California means “the impact of this eruption at the time on climate in these areas would have been much greater than previously thought.

“It would have made places very cold very quickly and would have been most felt in Britain and places in northwestern Europe. The consequences for these areas would have been immediate, with an increased likelihood of famine and ill health due to poor crop yields,” he said in a press release.

A sliver of proof

The Science article describes how an earlier research team led by the University of Bern’s Michael Sigl compared tree-ring patterns with records of volcanic eruptions to discover that “unusually cold summers” over the past 2,500 years were due to the blasts.

The year 536 is no exception: “A massive eruption — perhaps in North America, the team suggested — stood out in late 535 or early 536; another followed in 540. Sigl’s team concluded that the double blow explained the prolonged dark and cold,” writes Science.

Highland cows are photographed as they graze in the Kilpatrick Hills near Glasgow, Scotland, March 18, 2018, as the cold snap keeps a grip of the United Kingdom. (John Linton/PA via AP)

According to the Science article, Sigl remains unconvinced that the volcano’s origin was Iceland. The evidence for the Icelandic source is based on two microscopic slivers of volcanic glass discovered by UM graduate student Laura Hartman in ice from the spring of 536. Her findings were confirmed by University of Maine Climate Change Institute’s Prof. Andrei Kurbatov.

“By bombarding the shards with x-rays to determine their chemical fingerprint, she and Kurbatov found that they closely matched glass particles found earlier in lakes and peat bogs in Europe and in a Greenland ice core. Those particles in turn resembled volcanic rocks from Iceland,” writes Science.

To shore up the team’s theories, according to Science, the researchers intend to continue searching for additional Icelandic volcano particles in lakes in Europe and Iceland,  “and tease out why it was so devastating.”

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