Dr. Dagomar Degroot, Georgetown University
The world is warming, and it is warming fast. According to satellites and weather stations, Earth's average annual temperature will smash the instrumental record this year, likely by around 0.1° C. Last year, global temperatures broke the record by around the same amount. That may not seem impressive, but consider this: temperatures have climbed by about 0.1° C per decade since the 1980s. In just two years, therefore, our planet catapulted two decades into a hotter future.
Global climate change on this scale, with this speed, is unprecedented in the history of human civilization. Yet that history has still coincided with other, smaller but still impressive changes in Earth's climate. Humans may have played a minor role in some of these changes. The key culprits, however, were often violent explosions on Earth that coincided with periods of unusual solar activity. The most dramatic climate changes usually involved global cooling, not warming. The consequences for communities and societies around the world could be profound, in ways that offer lessons for our fate in a changing climate.
One of the coldest periods in the history of human civilization started in the early sixth century CE. Growth rings imprinted in the bark of trees suddenly narrow around 536 CE, and again around 541 CE. This narrowing reveals that trees practically stopped growing as Northern Hemisphere temperatures plunged by as many as 3°C, relative to long-term averages.
Other scientific "proxy" sources that responded to past climate changes reveal the same trend. A large team of interdisciplinary scholars, led by Ulf Büntgen, recently concluded that 536 CE was the first year of a "Late Antique Little Ice Age" - not to be confused with the better-known Little Ice Age of the early modern period - that chilled the Northern Hemisphere and perhaps the globe until 660 CE.
What could have caused this cooling? Cosmogenic isotopes tell us that solar activity had been falling for more than a century, as the sun gradually entered a "grand solar minimum." But that does not explain why Earth's climate changed so profoundly, and so abruptly, in the early sixth century CE.
Scientists now believe that ice cores containing traces of volcanic ash provide compelling evidence for a remarkable series of major eruptions, in 536, 540, and 547 CE. Big volcanic eruptions in the tropics can cool the Earth by releasing sunlight-scattering sulphur into the atmosphere. Trade winds swirling up from the equator bring this sulphur into both hemispheres, which ultimately creates a global volcanic dust veil. When eruptions happen in quick succession, Arctic sea ice can expand dramatically. Since bright sea ice reflects more sunlight than water, the Earth cools in response, which of course leads to more sea ice, more cooling, and so on.
Catastrophic volcanic eruptions, coinciding as they did with a prolonged decline in solar activity, may well have released enough aerosols into the atmosphere to usher in a much cooler climate. Yet sixth-century layers in Greenlandic ice cores may also suggest a very different, and even more exotic, culprit for climatic cooling.
Somehow, microscopic marine organisms of a kind normally found near tropical coasts ended up in ice layers that correspond to 536 and 538 CE. Layers dating from 533 CE also hold nickle and tin, substances that rarely appear in Greenlandic ice. Both metals are common in comets, however.
A team of scientists led by Dallas Abott recently concluded that dust from the tail of Halley's Comet may have started cooling the Earth as early as 533 CE. By reconstructing the past orbits of the comet, scientists discovered that it made a particularly close pass around the Sun in 530 CE. At around that time, Chinese astronomers recorded a remarkably bright comet in the night sky.
Earth regularly passes through debris left in the wake of Halley's Comet, and that debris might have been especially dense in the 530s and 540s. Meteor showers, therefore, may well have left cooling dust in the atmosphere, and metals in the ices of Greenland.
Tidal forces created by the gravity of a massive object - such as the Sun - can easily fragment cometary nuclei, most of which are collections of rubble left over from the primordial solar system. Dust released by such a breakup can dramatically brighten a comet. Perhaps that is what Chinese scientists witnessed in 530 CE, as Halley's Comet swung around the Sun.
According to Abbott and her coauthors, a piece of the comet may then have collided with Earth, launching sea creatures high into the atmosphere. Melted metal and gravity anomalies in the Gulf of Carpentaria off Australia suggest that an impact happened there sometime in the first millennium CE. At around the same time, aboriginal Australians etched symbols into caves that may well have represented comets.
It may well be that an extraordinary confluence of extraterrestrial impacts and volcanic eruptions, coinciding with a gradual fall in solar activity, chilled the Earth in the 530s and 540s CE. These dramatic environmental changes naturally astonished contemporary writers. In 536 CE, Procopius of Caesarea, a major scholar of the Eastern Roman Empire, wrote that the “sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon.” According to John of Ephesos, “there was a sign in the sun the like of which had never been seen and reported before in the world . . . The sun became dark and its darkness lasted for one and a half years."
A Syrian chronicler recorded that "The earth and all that is upon it quaked; and the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night." Chinese astronomers lost sight of Canopus, one of the brightest stars in the night sky. If there was a dust veil, it may well have been thick enough to obscure the heavens, whatever its origins.
Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman in the service of the Ostrogoths, wrote perhaps the most striking descriptions of the changes in Earth's atmosphere. "Something coming at us from the stars," he explained, had led to a "blue colored sun," a dim full moon, and a "summer without heat." Amid "perpetual frosts" and "unnatural drought," plants refused to grow and "the rays of the stars have been darkened." The cause, to Cassiodorus, must be high in the atmosphere, for "things in mid-space dominate our sight," and the "heat of the heavenly bodies" could not penetrate what seemed like mist.
Of course, we must guard against the assumption that observers such as Cassiodorus or Procopius simply recorded what they saw in the natural world. Descriptions of environmental calamities in ancient, medieval, and even early modern texts can be allegorical, representing social, not environmental developments. Still, many authors wrote eerily similar accounts of the real environmental upheavals in the 530s CE. To the modern eye, that of Cassiodorus in particular may seem to add evidence for a cometary cause of contemporary cooling.
As temperatures plummeted and plants withered, communities around the world suffered. Scientists have examined pollen deposits that reveal sharp drops in the extent of cultivated land across Europe. Shorter growing seasons probably led to food shortages and famines that emptied once-thriving villages. Archaeological evidence suggests, for example, that Swedes abandoned most of their population centers in the sixth century, which were then swallowed by forests. Swedish survivors apparently created new towns in far smaller numbers, in upland areas removed from their former dwelling places.
Famines may have had particularly severe consequences across the densely populated Mediterranean. In 533 CE, just as cometary dust may have started entering Earth's atmosphere, the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Justinian I, embarked on a costly campaign to restore the Western Empire. His subsequent wars in the Mediterranean, combined with a war against the Sassanid Empire that erupted in 540 CE, drew precious resources from the imperial countryside. As growing seasons declined, the demands of war compounded food shortages for millions of imperial citizens. Starvation spread through the empire, but worse was to come.
Malnutrition reduces fat-storing cells that produce the hormone leptin, which plays a key role in controlling the strength of the human immune system. In the sixth century, food shortages therefore weakened immune systems on a grand scale, leaving millions of people more vulnerable to disease. Those who survived famines also migrated to new towns or cities, increasing the likelihood that those infected with diseases would spread them.
Unfortunately for the inhabitants of what was left of the Roman Empire, Yersinia pestis, the pathogen behind the bubonic plague, was about to make its first appearance in Europe. From 541 to 542 CE, the “Plague of Justinian” swept through both the Western and Eastern halves of the Roman Empire, killing as many as fifty million people. In a warmer, more stable climate, the death toll may well have been far lower.
Not surprisingly, Justinian's campaign to retake the Western Empire stalled after the early 530s CE, although the reunified Roman Empire did reach its maximum extent in the 550s CE. Imperial resources were stretched thin, however, and European kingdoms reversed most of the new conquests soon after Justinian's death.
Climatic cooling probably had cultural consequences, too. There are signs, for example, that religious activity surged across Scandinavia as temperatures plunged. In times of crisis, devout Scandinavians offered gold to their gods in a way we might find counterinuitive: by burying it. Dating these underground hoardes is tricky, but it seems that Scandinavians buried most of them in the sixth century CE. These burials contributed to a gold shortage in Scandinavia that would endure for centuries.
The great oral traditions of Norse mythological poetry also date from the sixth century. Most people have heard of Ragnarök: the "twilight of the gods" that ends with the Earth incinerated and reborn. Fewer have come across the concept of Fimbulvetr, the "mighty winter" that heralds the final battle of the gods.
The Prose Edda, a thirteenth-century transcription of Norse mythology, describes Fimbulvetr in vivid detail. “Then snow will drift from all directions," the Edda predicts. "There will then be great frosts and keen winds. The sun will do no good. There will be three of these winters together and no summer between.” According to the Poetic Edda, a collection of poems also committed to writing in the thirteenth century, “The sun turns black . . . The bright stars vanish from the sky.”
These precise descriptions of an apocalyptic winter have no parallel in other religious texts or mythical traditions. Instead, they echo the sixth-century reports of Cassiodorus, Procopius, and other astonished observers of real environmental transformations. Scandinavians fleeing their homes amid catastrophic cooling may well have felt like they were living through a preview of the apocalypse.
The trauma caused by sixth-century environmental changes may therefore be imprinted on Norse mythology. Ideas of a new world in the wake of Ragnarök may also reflect the consequences of real events, such as the new settlements and cultures that emerged amid climatic cooling.
Can these ancient calamities offer any lessons for our warmer future? Perhaps. They suggest, for example, that complex, densely populated societies, far from being insulated from the effects of climate change, may actually be most at risk. When populations brush up against the carrying capacity of agricultural land, sudden environmental shifts can be catastrophic. In these situations, societies already embroiled in resource-draining wars could be particularly vulnerable. The consequences of sixth-century cooling hint, also, that responses to even short-lived climatic upheavals can profoundly alter cultures in ways that endure for centuries, or even millennia.
Ancient societies, of course, have little similarity to our own. Yet their struggles in periods of dramatic climate change may still shed some light on our prospects in a warming world. To understand the future, we would be well served to look back at the distant past.
Abbott, Dallas H., Dee Breger, Pierre E. Biscaye, John A. Barron, Robert A. Juhl, and Patrick McCafferty. "What caused terrestrial dust loading and climate downturns between AD 533 and 540?." Geological Society of America Special Papers 505 (2014): 421-438.
Arjava, Antti. "The mystery cloud of 536 CE in the Mediterranean sources." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 59 (2005): 73-94.
Axboe, Martin. "The year 536 and the Scandinavian gold hoards." Medieval Archaeology 43 (1999).
Gräslund, Bo, and Neil Price. "Twilight of the gods? The ‘dust veil event’ of AD 536 in critical perspective." Antiquity 86:332 (2012): 428-443.
Hamacher, Duane W. "Comet and meteorite traditions of Aboriginal Australians." Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (2014): 1-4.
Widgren, Mats. "Climate and causation in the Swedish Iron Age: learning from the present to understand the past." Geografisk Tidsskrift-Danish Journal of Geography 112:2 (2012): 126-134.