The Worst Year in History to Be Alive

The Worst Year: The Volcanic Winter of 536

The most severe and prolonged episode of climatic cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2,000 years occurred in 536 AD and was known as the volcanic winter.

Causes of the Volcanic Winter

The volcanic winter was caused by an eruption that occurred in early AD 536 (or possibly late 535). It was believed to have taken place on various continents, but most contemporary accounts of the volcanic winter were from authors in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The eruption ejected massive amounts of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, reducing the solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface and cooling the atmosphere for several years.

Impact on the Environment

In March 536, Constantinople began experiencing darkened skies and cooler temperatures. Summer temperatures in 536 fell by as much as 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 Fahrenheit degrees) below normal in Europe. Another volcanic eruption in 539-540 caused summer temperatures to decline by as much as 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 Fahrenheit degrees) below normal. There was also evidence of another volcanic eruption in 547 which extended the cooler period.

Consequences of the Volcanic Winter

The volcanic eruptions caused crop failures and were accompanied by the Plague of Justinian, famine, and millions of deaths. The volcanic winter initiated the Late Antique Little Ice Age, which lasted from 536 to 560. Medieval scholar Michael McCormick wrote that 536 was the worst year in history to be alive, and it marked the beginning of one of the worst periods in history.

 

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Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization by David Keys
Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization by David Keys

The Phenomenon of 536 AD

Procopius’ Report

In AD 536, the Roman historian Procopius recorded in his report on the wars with the Vandals that the most dread portent took place. The sun gave forth its light without brightness, appearing like the sun in an eclipse, with the beams it shed not being clear.

Cassiodorus’ Description

In 538, the Roman statesman Cassiodorus described the following to one of his subordinates in a letter:

  • The sun’s rays were weak, appearing a bluish color.
  • At noon, no shadows from people were visible on the ground.
  • The heat from the sun was feeble.
  • The moon was empty of splendor, even when full.
  • A winter without storms, a spring without mildness, and a summer without heat.
  • Prolonged frost and unseasonable drought.
  • The seasons seemed to be all jumbled up together.
  • The sky was described as blended with alien elements, stretched like a hide across the sky, and prevented the true colors of the sun and moon from being seen.
  • Frosts during harvest, making apples harden and grapes sour.
  • The need to use stored food to last through the situation.

Letters 26 and 27 discussed plans to relieve a widespread famine.

Michael the Syrian’s Report

Michael the Syrian, a patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, reported that during 536-537, the sun shone feebly for a year and a half.

Irish Annals

The Gaelic Irish Annals recorded the following:

  • A failure of bread in AD 536 AD (Annals of Ulster)
  • A failure of bread from AD 536-539 (Annals of Inisfallen)
  • The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was great mortality in Britain and Ireland (Annales Cambriae)
Independent Contemporary Sources

Further phenomena were reported by independent contemporary sources:

  • Low temperatures, even snow during the summer (snow reportedly fell in August in China, causing the harvest to be delayed)
  • Widespread crop failures
  • A dense, dry fog in the Middle East, China, and Europe
  • Drought in Peru, affecting the Moche culture

The Causes of AD 536 Climatic Changes

Theory One:

Volcanic Eruptions It was initially believed that the climatic changes of AD 536 were caused by a volcanic eruption, known as “volcanic winter”. In 2008, evidence was found of sulfate deposits in ice cores which strongly supported the volcanic hypothesis.

Theory Two:

Meteorites or Comets It was also theorized that climatic changes were caused by a meteorite or one or more comets. However, the evidence obtained in 2008 ruled out this possibility.

Theory Three:

Rabaul Volcano In 1984, R. B. Stothers postulated that the climatic changes were caused by the Rabaul volcano in Papua New Guinea.

Theory Four:

Krakatoa Volcano In 1999, David Keys suggested that the Krakatoa volcano was responsible for the changes. However, there is no other evidence of an eruption in 416, as described in the Javanese Book of Kings.

Theory Five:

Tierra Blanca Joven Eruption In 2010, Robert Dull and colleagues presented evidence of a link between climatic changes and the Tierra Blanca Joven eruption in El Salvador. The results suggested that the eruption was much larger than previously thought and that it was consistent with the ice core sulfate records.

Theory Six:

Multiple Eruptions A 2015 study identified signals of two eruptions in 535 or early 536 and 539-540, which would have sustained the cooling effects.

Theory Seven:

Iceland Volcano In 2018, Harvard University researchers suggested that the cause was a volcanic eruption in Iceland. However, the evidence is insufficient to discard the North American hypothesis.

Conclusion

To date, there is no widely agreed-upon single-source volcano for the volcanic winter that began in AD 536, and it remains possible that the extreme cold of 536 to 540 was the result of multiple volcanic events during those years.

 

536 Event and Its Consequences

Scandinavian Elites Deposit Gold

It has been proposed that the 536 event and subsequent famine may have led to Scandinavian elites depositing hoards of gold at the end of the Migration Period. This was likely a form of sacrifice to appease the gods and bring back sunlight. Some believe that mythological events like the Fimbulwinter and Ragnarök are based on cultural memories of this event.

David Key’s Book

In his book, David Keys speculates that climate changes played a role in various significant events, including the emergence of the Plague of Justinian, the decline of the Avars, the migration of Mongol tribes, the end of the Sassanid Empire, the collapse of the Gupta Empire, the rise of Islam, the expansion of Turkic tribes, and the fall of Teotihuacán.

A documentary based on Keys’ book was produced in 2000 by 3BM Television and broadcast in the US as part of PBS’s Secrets of the Dead series. However, Keys’ and Wohletz’s ideas are not widely accepted. British archaeologist Ken Dark criticized Keys’ book, saying that much of the evidence presented was debatable and incorrect.

Andrew Breeze’s Book

Philologist Andrew Breeze argues in a recent book that some King Arthur events, including the Battle of Camlann, are historical and occurred in 537 as a result of the famine caused by the previous year’s climate change.

 

The Historical Arthur and The Gawain Poet: Studies on Arthurian and Other Traditions by Andrew Breeze
The Historical Arthur and The Gawain Poet: Studies on Arthurian and Other Traditions by Andrew Breeze

Sources

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, February 7). Volcanic winter of 536. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanic_winter_of_536

  • Why 536 was “the worst year to be alive.” (2021). Science.org. https://www.science.org/content/article/why-536-was-worst-year-be-alive

  • Ngamla, M. (2020, December 16). Why the “Year 536 A.D” was the Worst Year To Be Alive. Medium; The Collector. https://medium.com/the-collector/year-536-a-d-the-worst-year-to-be-alive-5e561f045277

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