Harvard historian, Michael McCormick, asserts that the year 536 AD was the worst year to be alive in human history,  and the catalyst for a century-long spell of acute misery within the already ‘Dark Ages’. Recent ice core research has lead scientists to trace the source of the harsh and punishing conditions to a possible volcanic eruption in Iceland. However, not everyone is convinced.

The year 536 AD saw a huge cloud of fog envelope Europe and parts of the Middle East and Asia, blocking out the sun and casting half of the world’s population into continuous darkness. Crops failed and people starved as they shivered through 1.5-2.5°C summers undoubtedly asking themselves what almighty power they had angered to provoke such abandon.

Scientists and historians have long known of this withered branch of human history and the fateful year it began without being completely sure what caused such gloom to befall Europe.

Many believe it was a volcanic fog that invaded Europe which blocked the sun’s rays from reaching the earth and instead reflected them back into space, leaving the earth’s poor inhabitants really quite chilly! It’s called an aerosol effect—think of global warming and greenhouse gases but intensified to a nightmare degree.

Explore a volcano for yourself on this Magma Chamber tour.

Two further suspected eruptions in the years 540 and 547 AD further hindered the earth’s chances of recovery and it is reckoned that the civilisations and economies or the already struggling people of the Middle Ages did not start to pick up until 640.

Huge plumes of smoke and particles spew out of volcanoes while they erupt and travel as far as weather systems will take them. Evidence of eruptions enter the atmosphere and traces of such occurrences will become trapped in ice.  Ice core analysis has proven invaluable identifying globally significant events and it is a fascinating and growing field of research for a better understanding of the past.

An international team of scientists now believe they may have traced the roots of molten mischief to Iceland. Ice core samples from a Swiss glacier have been exposed to ultraprecise analysis bringing to light tiny particles of volcanic glass which appear to be Icelandic in origin.

Molten lava is the least of the world’s worries; it’s the volcanic plumes of ash, glass and fumes which cause damage beyond Iceland. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So Could Iceland Really be to blame?

Icelandic volcanoes have often been accused of creating challenging conditions in Europe; the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption famously halted European air traffic and bankrupted a couple of airline companies.

This was not the first nor last time Icelandic volcanism would take centre stage; many of today’s news outlets are quite fond of ruminating on the consequences to befall the rest of the world should Katla, Iceland’s overdue supervolcano, break her chains and blow.

In 1783, Lakagígar fissure violently erupted for a gruelling eight months and has far greater accusations levied against it, chiefly, the French Revolution. The huge plumes of smoke this monster explosion emitted have been found to be at the root of a consequent famine throughout Europe—thought to be why the French proletariat protested a considerable lack of food.

Could something similar have happened in 536 AD? McCormack and his colleagues’ results are far from conclusive and further samples from Icelandic and European lakes will have to be cross-referenced for a definitive answer of what exactly happened.

Icelandic Volcanologist Disagrees – Blames North America

Local volcanologist, Ármann Höskuldsson, absolutely disagrees with the hypothesis that an Icelandic volcano is to blame for the 6th-century European blight. He claims that the idea that an eruption of that magnitude occurred in Iceland at that time does not fit with the physical evidence.

Iceland was completely devoid of human life at the time of the accusations; the first settlers did not arrive until the 8-9th century so there is no written record from Icelanders from this time. However, by looking at effects of the 1783 Skaftáreldar eruption, Höskuldsson argues there should be certain clues in the soil and dramatic physical scars to corroborate a theory for a huge scale volcanic event in 536.

See Also: Volcanoes in Iceland

An alternative argument is that the volcano to be held responsible is actually in North America, a continent which most Europeans are usually happy to blame for global turmoil.

There are other historical cases of volcanic eruptions from further afield deeply affecting the fate of the Northern Hemisphere; it is thought that the cataclysmic explosion of Krakatau in Indonesia caused a Little Ice Age in Europe, a period of significant cooling which devastated entire communities.

Wherever the guilty volcano may be hiding, one thing is clear: there are certainly worse things than having your flight cancelled.