You wake up to a dark, dreary, glum-feeling, Monday-type of morning. For the 547th consecutive day. Just 18 months prior, you were a hard-working farmer gearing up for another bountiful crop season. But then the skies went dark.
From early 536 to 537, they stayed dark. Across much of eastern Europe and throughout Asia, spring turned into summer and fall gave way to winter without a day of sunshine. Like a blackout curtain over the sun, millions of people across the world’s most populated countries squinted through dim conditions, breathing in chokingly thick air and losing nearly every crop they were relying on to harvest.
This isn’t the plot of a dystopian TV drama or a fantastical “docufiction” production. This was a harsh reality for the millions of people that lived through that literally dark time or, as some historians have declared, the very worst year ever to be alive.
The darkest year ahead of the darkest decade
“For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed,” was the grim account Procopius, a prominent scholar who became the principal Byzantine historian of the 6th century, gave in History of the Wars. “And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.”
Some 1,500 years later, Harvard University medieval historian Michael McCormick has reached a similarly grim conclusion about not just 536, but the dreadful decade that followed that terrible year. For people living across Europe in 536, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” McCormick recently said.
It was all set off by rapid, drastic climate change. In the spring of 536, a volcanic eruption triggered the Late Antique Little Ice Age (LALIA). And its ramifications, on top of ensuing eruptions in 540 and 547, were devastating.
“Aerosols for the big volcanic eruptions blocked solar radiation, dropping the solar heating of the Earth’s surface,” wrote McCormick in an email, adding that climate analysis from Cambridge University in the U.K. done on tree rings show the average summer temperature “dropped by between 1.5 degrees and 2.5 degrees Celsius across Eurasia.”
That’s up to 2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit cooler due to the heavy smog left behind after the eruption. The skies remained dimmed for up to 18 months, multiple historical witnesses recounted, triggering the dark year of turmoil that earned 536 its dubious distinction.
Weather patterns were severely affected by the blocked sunlight, leading to summer snowfall in China and the lowest temperature levels in more than 2,300 years, according to recorded historical accounts and climate reconstruction analysis.
In the Middle East, China and Europe, a dense fog was an inescapable daily nightmare while widespread agricultural challenges in Ireland resulted in a “failure of bread from the years 536-539 AD,“ according to The Gaelic Irish Annals.
Much of scientists’ understanding of the impacts from the Iceland volcano were found during the Historical Ice Core Project, a partnership between the University of Maine and Harvard University that McCormick co-led along with Professor Paul Mayewski of the Climate Change Institute. Using ice core samples from Iceland, the team mapped out an archeological timeline to pinpoint when and where the initial volcanic eruption must have occurred in Iceland.
Its impacts were widespread and deadly.
“Ancient eyewitnesses report that the sun stopped shining brightly for 14-18 months,” McCormick said. “The result was several years of failed harvests, famines, causing migrations and turbulence across Eurasia.“