Was Climate The Cause Of Ancient Political Turmoil?

Ash and pumice belching from volcanic eruptions – such as Mount Tavurvur in Papua New Guinea – trigger climate change. Image: Taro Taylor via Wikimedia CommonsAsh and pumice belching from volcanic eruptions – such as Mount Tavurvur in Papua New Guinea – trigger climate change. Image: Taro Taylor via Wikimedia Commons

Volcanic eruptions that triggered climatic extremes could have heralded deadly plague and famine in Europe and undermined the Roman empire.

Climate change may have helped to alter the course of history. A period of extreme and unprecedented cooling in the northern hemisphere 1,500 years ago may have reduced the eastern Roman empire, set the stage for a famine and a devastating pandemic that killed millions, and favoured the rise of the Islamic forces that created the Arab empire.

The so-called Little Ice Age of the 14th to the 19th centuries has been linked to political upheaval and plague in Europe. But now climate scientists are more confident that something that could be called the “Late Antique Little Ice Age” followed a series of three violent volcanic eruptions in the years 536, 540 and 547 AD.

These would have ejected vast volumes of sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, darkened the summer skies, blocked sunlight, and lowered the temperatures across much of the northern half of the globe.

Overall cooling

Within five years of the onset of this overall cooling, what became known as the Plague of Justinian − named after the Roman emperor then in Constantinople − swept through the Mediterranean region and killed millions of people.

But while famine hit Europe and Central Asia, the argument goes, the Arabian peninsula got more rain, more crops, more fodder for horses and camels, and more rations for the commissariat of the Arab forces that were to begin to advance on Constantinople.

“This was the most dramatic cooling in the
Northern Hemisphere in the past 2,000 years”

History is complex, but climate often seems to provide either the conditions or the driver for political and social change. In the past three years, researchers have now linked climate change directly with:

Ulf Büntgen, head of dendroecology at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape, and colleagues now report in Nature Geoscience that a study of tree-ring measurements in the Altai mountains of Siberian Russia and the Alps of Europe confirms a long, cool interval in the 6th and 7th centuries, which they attribute to volcanic eruption.

The cooling contributed to crop failure and famine, and must have been a factor in the plague, the transformation of the Roman Empire, political change in China, the spread of Slavic-speaking peoples, and the development of the early Islamic empire.

Turbulence of history

The study, by international climate scientists, naturalists, historians and linguists within Future Earth’s Past Global Changes project (PAGES) – which recently concluded that Europe’s summer temperatures were now higher than ever before – matches the new climate information with the turbulence of history, and finds an imperfect fit, but nevertheless a fit.

And it parallels contemporary alarm about the potential of human-induced climate change – this time global warming – to amplify social conflict and large-scale migration of the kind that must have characterised what historians used to call the Dark Ages of Europe.

“This was the most dramatic cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 2,000 years,” Dr Büntgen says. “With so many variables, we must remain cautious about the environmental cause and political effect, but it is striking how closely this climate change aligns with major upheavals across several regions.” – Climate News Network

About the Author

Tim Radford, freelance journalistTim Radford is a freelance journalist. He worked for The Guardian for 32 years, becoming (among other things) letters editor, arts editor, literary editor and science editor. He won the Association of British Science Writers award for science writer of the year four times. He served on the UK committee for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. He has lectured about science and the media in dozens of British and foreign cities. 

Science that Changed the World: The untold story of the other 1960s revolutionBook by this Author:

Science that Changed the World: The untold story of the other 1960s revolution
by Tim Radford.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon. (Kindle book)

English Afrikaans Arabic Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Dutch Filipino French German Hindi Indonesian Italian Japanese Korean Malay Persian Portuguese Russian Spanish Swahili Swedish Thai Turkish Urdu Vietnamese

LATEST VIDEOS

Jay Inslee Tells Hayes That He Wants To Gut The Filibuster To Fight Climate Change
by MSNBC
Washington Governor Jay Inslee is running for president on the single issue of climate change and argues that doing…
Causes and Effects of Climate Change
by National Geographic
What causes climate change (also known as global warming)? And what are the effects of climate change? Learn the human…
Extreme Weather and Global Warming
by NASA Goddard
Is the frequency of extreme weather events a sign that global warming is gaining pace and exceeding predictions? Bill…
Thanks to Climate Change, Wet Winters No Match for Drier California Summers
by KPIX CBS SF Bay Area
If the emerald-green hills around Northern California have you thinking recent rains have put a damper on the fire…
Climate Change Is Not One Issue
by MSNBC
"Climate change is not one issue," said David Wallace-Wells, author of "The Uninhabitable Earth," but is…
The Heat: Climate change
by CGTN America
Images gathered by NASA show an increase in foliage in China and India. The greening effect is mainly due to ambitious…
No company is doing enough to combat climate change: Jeremy Grantham
by CNBC Television
Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of GMO, on climate change and what needs to be done to combat it.
Power Plants Are POISONING Groundwater All Over America
by The Ring of Fire
According to a new report, 90% of coal-fired power plants across the country have completely contaminated the…

LATEST ARTICLES

Default Image
Come on, UK weather forecasters – tell it like it is on climate change
by Adam Corner
They have a national reach that most climate campaigners would die for. They are familiar and respected experts on the…
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
by David Roberts
One of the elements of the Green New Deal resolution that has caused the most consternation among critics on the right…
Default Image
UK environmentalists target Barclays in fossil fuels campaign
by Matthew Taylor
A UK-wide campaign is being launched to persuade one of the country’s biggest high street banks to stop investing…
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
by Tim Radford
What does oceanic carbon uptake achieve? Greenhouse gas that sinks below the waves slows global warming a little and…
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
by Global Warming & Climate Change
“Climate change plus growth equals an existential threat,” Mr. Bevan said. To avoid severe water shortages, he added,…
Default Image
Record high US temperatures outpace record lows two to one, study finds
by Associated Press
Over the past 20 years, Americans have been twice as likely to sweat through record-breaking heat rather than shiver…
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
by BBC News - Science & Environment
Image copyright PA Image caption Low water levels at Wayoh Reservoir near Bolton in the UK heatwave in July 2018 Within…
Default Image
Why you'll never meet a white supremacist who cares about climate change
by Rebecca Solnit
As the news of the Christchurch mosque massacre broke and I scoured the news, I came across a map showing that the…