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Why 536 AD Is the Worst Year Ever To Be Alive in History

Ravi Rajan is a software program director who writes on varied subjects from history, archaeology to leadership and writing techniques

536 AD Was the Worst Year to Be Alive

536 AD Was the Worst Year to Be Alive

536 AD Was the Worst Year to Be Alive

In the summer of 536, strange black clouds appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Also known as the ‘veil of dust’, it plunged all the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness for more than 18 months. As medieval historian Michael McCormick says about the event.

"It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year."

There were a lot of other disastrous events that may have resulted from these ominous clouds. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, which became known as the Justinian Plague. A third of the population perished during the outbreak.

Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell to 1.5°C - 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. The Irish chronicles record ‘a failure of bread from the years 536–539.’In China in 536 AD, there was famine and drought all around with reports of a ‘yellow dust that rained down like snow.’ On the other hand, unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.

Scandinavia was devastated with 75% of its villages abandoned by the Swedes to search for more fertile lands beyond. A Norse record describes the event as ‘The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.’

The severe changes in weather impacted every part of the world as human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many, it would have felt like the world is coming to an end.

What caused the occurrence of the mysterious black clouds? Experts are divided in their opinion.

One group says that the cause of all this misery might be one gigantic volcanic eruption, namely Ilopango in El Salvador. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the Earth. Another group says the dark clouds occurred due to a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere.

And recently researchers, based on data collected believe that the source of the mysterious clouds might have been two volcanic eruptions and not just one, one in 535 or 536 in the northern hemisphere and another in 539 or 540 in the tropics that kept temperatures icy cold till 550.

But the identities of both the volcanoes are unknown to date.

Ilopango, the volcanic mountain in El Salvador is a possible suspect for the 536 AD eruption.

Ilopango, the volcanic mountain in El Salvador is a possible suspect for the 536 AD eruption.

The Mysterious Black Clouds of 536 AD

In the past, some scientists had considered Ilopango in El Salvador a possible suspect for the 536 AD eruption. Ilopango created the biggest volcanic eruption in the past 7000 years expelling a mammoth 10.5 cubic miles of dense rock. Although the massive eruption altered the history of the local Maya settlement completely, its impact across the world remained uncertain and speculative.

And a team of scientists led by Michael Sigl of the University of Bern has confirmed that the culprits of the dark clouds were two volcanoes that erupted up to four years apart.

The two volcanoes were so large and violent, they launched Sulphur gases and particles miles into the sky. And since the material reflected sunlight away from the earth’s surface, it caused global cooling, resulting in crop failures and starvation.

Although the identities of the volcanoes remain is believed that 536 AD one originated in Alaska or Iceland and the other 539/540 AD originated somewhere in the tropics. The conclusion was reached by combining data of two different kinds; ice cores collected in Antarctica and Greenland and data from tree rings from drought/famine-affected areas around the world.

When a volcano erupts, it spews Sulphur particles called aerosols into the air, where they can persist for two to three years. These Sulphur particles eventually fall to Earth and get incorporated into polar and glacial ice, providing a record of the eruptions. Thus, ice cores collected of this period provide valuable details of the eruption with respect to impact and reach.

Similarly, tree rings record the impact of an eruption in the size of the rings. Thus, the rings may appear wider or thinner than average, depending on whether the region is typically wet or dry and the normal length of the growing season. This provides experts with a view of whether the area has been affected by a natural calamity such as drought or famine.

By combining both the data, Michael Sigl and his team found out that every unusually cold summer over the past 2500 years was preceded by a volcanic eruption.

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Thus, the catastrophic events of 536 AD that resulted due to the mysterious dark clouds across the world were due to two massive eruptions, one perhaps in North America in 535 AD, followed by another one in 540 AD somewhere in the tropics. This double blow spaced over 4 years wreaked havoc across the world.

The analysis also reinforces the fact that volcanic eruptions have the potency to completely disrupt human history with long-lasting global effects that can go for years together. As Joe McConnell, a researcher says.

“We were amazed at the close correspondence and the consistency of the climate response to volcanic sulphate forcing during the entire 2,500-year period. This clearly shows the marked impact that volcanic eruptions have on our climate and, in some cases, on human health, economics and so history.”



Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 30, 2021:

Thanks Flourish for your comments

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 30, 2021:

This was interesting information. It certainly is all about perspective in 2020 and 2021.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 30, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 30, 2021:

Informative about a year I had an idea of but you enlightened me here. 2020 well, will go down as one the worst globally.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Brenda for the comments.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on April 29, 2021:

Alot of information here.

I imagine if I saw those clouds I would think the world was coming to an end.

Well, I suppose it did for the Mayans.

Though I had always heard they really didn't know what exactly happened to them.

It's like they just disappeared.

Thanks for sharing.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Chitangada for your comments

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 29, 2021:

Excellent and informative article about the natural calamities of the past!

The last year, and this year also, will go down in history as one of the worst years! So many lives lost, and God knows, when will it end! I don't know, if any of the earlier worst calamities, had an impact on the entire World, at the same time, which is happening now!

Thank you for sharing this well written article!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Linda for your comments

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 29, 2021:

Thank you for creating this interesting article. It certainly sounds like 536 AD was a horrible year!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Farah for your comments

Farah N Huq from Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 29, 2021:

A very interesting and informative article. Don't know about volcanoes, but I am dead scared of earthquakes! May the Almighty protect us all from all sorts of calamities.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for your comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 29, 2021:

That is a fascinating report about the devastation in the past. Some scientists predict a similar situation, should Yellowstone erupt someday. The sky would be darkened, crops would fail, etc. I guess we should take each day as it comes!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Lorna for your comments

Lorna Lamon on April 29, 2021:

I think the effects of 20/21 will also be felt for many years, and if we don't pay attention to our climate now, we will face the wrath of Mother Nature. An interesting article Ravi.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Bill.Yes comparatively we are better at least as we have the sun and nature around us

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 29, 2021:

Well, that certainly makes 2020 look like a good year, doesn't it? Perspective, my friend. Excellent article. Very interesting!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Vidya for your comments

VIDYA D SAGAR on April 29, 2021:

Interesting article Ravi. I agree with Urwa, 20,21 will be recorded as the cursed years.So many lives lost and so much suffering all over the world due to the virus.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 29, 2021:

Thanks Urwa for the comments

Iqra from East County on April 29, 2021:

I agree with you Ravi, In 2018, medieval scholar Michael McCormick nominated 536 as "the worst year to be alive" because of the extreme weather events probably caused by a volcanic eruption early in the year, causing average temperatures in Europe and China to decline and resulting in crop failures and famine for well over a year. Similarly many are convinced 2020 and 2021 are cursed years, the worst in the history of human civilization.

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