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.
The Phenomenon of 536 AD
The Causes of AD 536 Climatic Changes
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.
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.
Rabaul Volcano In 1984, R. B. Stothers postulated that the climatic changes were caused by the Rabaul volcano in Papua New Guinea.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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