Long before anyone was even living in Iceland, the country may have been responsible for a massive global crop failure in 536 CE, also dubbed “the worst year to be alive”, at least by Science anyway.
Historians have been aware for a long time now that the mid-6th century was a time of great hardship for people across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Records from this time attest to a blanket of clouds blotting out the sun from the sky, plummeting temperatures and massive crop failures. Snow fell in the middle of summer as far afield as China, and famine was reported across the European continent.
While the cause has been foggy for a long time, a new research paper published in Antiquity points to one likely culprit: Iceland.
“[A]n ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit,” Science reports. “At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640.”
How were they able to come to this conclusion? Simply put: by analysing the chemical composition of ash trapped in glacial ice from over 2,000 years ago.
“In ice from the spring of 536, UM graduate student Laura Hartman found two microscopic particles of volcanic glass,” Science explains. “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. The chemical similarities convince geoscientist David Lowe of The University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, who says the particles in the Swiss ice core likely came from the same Icelandic volcano.”
That said, the results are far from conclusive. There is still the strong possibility that the eruption originated in North America. Pinpointing the exact source will require finding more particles from this volcano in lakes across Europe and Iceland.
Regardless, the results are promising, and should put things in perspective the next time a volcanic eruption in Iceland disrupts air traffic in Europe. Just remember: there are worse affects of an eruption than a cancelled flight.