New research from Future Earth core project PAGES suggests links between the century-long “Late Antique Little Ice Age” in Europe and central Asia with famine, large-scale migration, a plague pandemic that ripped through the Eastern Roman Empire, and the expansion of the Arab Empire.
Studying old trees in the Altai mountains allowed reconstructing Eurasia summer temperatures over the last 2,000 years. Photo: Vladimir S. Myglan.
Researchers from the international Past Global Changes (PAGES) project write in the journal Nature Geoscience that they have identified an unprecedented, long-lasting cooling in the northern hemisphere 1500 years ago. The drop in temperature immediately followed three large volcanic eruptions in quick succession in the years 536, 540 and 547 AD (also known as the Common Era or CE). Volcanoes can cause climate cooling by ejecting large volumes of small particles – sulfate aerosols – that enter the atmosphere blocking sunlight.
The findings of the study have been largely covered by international media, such as the New Scientist and the Washington Post. The latter points out that this might be some of the strongest evidence of a direct link between climate change and monumental shifts in civilisations across entire regions.
Within five years of the onset of the “Late Antique Little Ice Age”, as the researchers have dubbed it, the Justinian plague pandemic swept through the Mediterranean between 541 and 543 AD, striking Constantinople and killing millions of people in the following centuries. The authors suggest these events may have contributed to the decline of the eastern Roman Empire.