Year of Darkness: The Climate Cataclysm of 536 You’ve Never Heard Of
During 536 the world was beset by a long winter. Dubbed “the year of darkness” in the New Scientist, temperatures plummeted and the sun was dimmed by a vast fog which blocked its rays from hitting the earth during 24 hours a day over the course of 18 months. This climate cataclysm affected Europe, the Middle East and even parts of Asia over the course of the following decade. In fact, “this climatic downturn may well have profoundly altered the course of history.” But what caused this global climate cataclysm?
The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (Public domain)
References in Historic Texts to a Global Climatic Cataclysm
Back in 2018, Science reported that the medieval historian Michael McCormick had stated that 536 “was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year.” In his historical work Historiae Ecclesiasticae, translating as “Church Histories”, the 6th century historian and church leader John of Ephesus wrote that “the sun became dark and its darkness lasted for 18 months.”
Between the years 535 and 536, a series of major climatic events took place that could easily be described as a global cataclysm with catastrophic consequences. “Each day, it [the sun] shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow. Everyone declared that the sun would never recover its full light again,” detailed Ephesus.
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In fact, according to Brandon Specktor in LiveScience, “the fall of the Roman Empire may have been a partial result of the decade of famine and plague that began in A.D. 536.” The fall in temperatures was in fact the beginning of the coldest decade to have been experienced during the last 2,000 years.
These low temperatures, falling as low as 1.5 C in summer time for example, led to crop failures and famine recorded across the world. Just a few years later, in 541 AD, Justinian’s Plague killed as many as 100 million people throughout the Mediterranean, a dire time to be alive indeed.
Destruction from The Course of Empire, by Thomas Cole. (Public domain)
The Darkness and Severe Winter of 536
John of Ephesus is not the only writer to mention this climate cataclysm. Procopius, who lived between 500 and 565 AD and was a late antiquities Byzantine scholar and historian, also refers to the strange behavior of the sun during 536 AD.
Believing it to be a bad sign foretelling coming events, Procopius stated “and it came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. 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.”
Another reference to the climate cataclysm of 536 comes from the 6th century writer Zacharias of Mytilene, who authored a chronicle that contains a section referring to the “Dark Sun” between 535 and 536 AD.
The sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while the ocean was tumultuous with spray from the 24th of March in this year till the 24th of June in the following year... And, as the winter was a severe one, so much so that from the large and unwonted quantity of snow the birds perished... there was distress... among men... from the evil things.” Zacharias of Mytilene (Chronicle, 9.19, 10.1)
These three extracts are just a representative sample of numerous accounts from all over the world, written during the era in question. In all cases, the sun was described as getting dimmer and losing its light. Many also described it as having a bluish color.
The effects were also observed with the moon. It simply wasn’t as bright anymore. The reduction of the light resulted in the reduction of heat on the planet. A lack of rain and a very long winter resulted in crop failures and for birds and other wildlife to perish, as Zacharias of Mytilene writes. Famine and plagues struck many areas and there were a huge number of deaths.
In China and Japan, the event was also recorded in great detail. With scarce water, there were massive droughts and death followed. Hundreds of thousands of square miles became infertile. The Beishi chronicles, the official history of the Northern Dynasties, mentions that in the province of Xi’an 80% of the population died and the survivors ate corpses to survive. The year was 536.
The catastrophic event also struck Korea, the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Australia. While written records do not exist for all countries, archaeological and geological data revealed evidence of the climatic changes. Studies done on the trunks of trees, for example, showed that 536 AD had been the coldest in 1,500 years.
Massive volcanic eruption. (James Thew / Adobe Stock)
Trying to Understand What Caused the Darkness
The important question in all of this is why did it happen? While there are no definite answers for the climate cataclysm of 536, one theory put forward for the worst year in history is that there was a large asteroid or comet impact which landed in the sea (if it had hit land there would be evidence of a crater).
Geologist Dallas Abbott is one proponent of this view and bases his view on evidence that he found studying ice cores from Greenland. However, this wouldn’t explain the dim light of the sun, and no tsunamis have been recorded for this period, which would have occurred if an asteroid landed in the ocean.
Another theory that has been put forward is a gigantic volcanic eruption, as the dust thrown up into the atmosphere could have caused the dimming of the light. One candidate is Krakatoa, located between the islands of Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. Indeed, the Pustaka Raja Purwa (meaning “Book of the Ancient Kings”) written in 1869, describes an ancient volcano.
There was a furious shaking of the earth, total darkness, thunder and lighting… Then came forth a furious gale together with torrential rain and a deadly storm darkened the entire world… When the waters subsided it could be seen that the island of Java had been split into two, this creating the island of Sumatra.
Although this manuscript refers to the year 416 AD and not 535 AD, the fact that it was written in the 19th century could account for inaccuracies in the time reference.
On the left: The ice core drilling site at Colle Gnifetti in Switzerland. On the right: A section of the ice core used to decipher evidence about the climate cataclysm of 536. (Nicole Spaulding / CC BY 4.0)
Searching for Answers: Understanding the Climate Cataclysm of 536
Whether or not a definitive answer will ever be found is unknown, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to find one. One thing that is quite peculiar about this global climate cataclysm is that it is a virtually unknown event.
Why is it that this climatic event is not taught in schools? Why isn’t there a plethora of research examining it? Perhaps it is because it reminds us of our fragility as human beings and the fact that no matter how powerful and “advanced” mankind becomes, we are still at the mercy of nature.
While historians have known about this climate cataclysm for a long time, they have remained puzzled as to its causes. In 2018, the analysis of a 72-meter-long (253 foot) core of ice from a glacier in the Swiss Alps, which serves as a logbook of naturally occurring and human created events, has concluded that an immense volcanic eruption in Iceland spread ash throughout the Northern Hemisphere in 536. There were two more eruptions in 540 and 547. Their results were published in the journal Antiquity.
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But, why does a volcanic eruption affect global temperatures? “When a volcano erupts, it spews sulfur, bismuth, and other substances high into the atmosphere, where they form an aerosol veil that reflects the sun's light back into space, cooling the planet,” explains Ann Gibbons in Science.
According to the Antiquity study, by 640 the ice core shows traces of lead, which they concluded is evidence of a so-called “silver-smelting boom.” Live Science explains that this silver boom is a sure sign of “an economy rebounding in the darkness of starving, disease-stricken Europe, and the emergence of a new merchant class ready to trade in precious metals.” Humanity began to recover from the dire effects of climatic conditions of 536.
Top image: 536 was a year of climate cataclysm. Winter landscape by Caspar David Friedrich. Source: Public domain
By John Black
Barras, C. 15 January 2014. “AD 536: The year that winter never ended” in New Scientist. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22129520.700-ad-536-the-year-that-winter-never-ended.html
Gibbons, Ann. 15 November 2018. “Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’” in Science. Available at: https://www.science.org/content/article/why-536-was-worst-year-be-alive
Greshko, M. 23 August 2019. “Colossal volcano behind ‘mystery? Global cooling finally found” in National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/colossal-volcano-behind-mystery-global-cooling-found
Keys, D. 2000. Catastrophe. Arrow Books Ltd.
Little, B. 3 December 2018. “The Worst Time in History to Be Alive, According to Science” in History. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/536-volcanic-eruption-fog-eclipse-worst-year
Newitz, A. 20 January 2014. “What caused a 10-year winter starting in 536?” in GIZMODO. Available at: https://gizmodo.com/what-caused-a-10-year-winter-starting-in-536-1505213873
Specktor, B. 20 November 2018. “536 Was a Garbage Year for Mankind (So Give 2018 a Break)” in LiveScience. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/64132-worst-year-ever-536.html