It has happened to everybody to look for a particularly harsh year to draw to a close, hoping that the following one may bring better days ahead. But what has the worst year ever been? It seems impossible to answer because humanity, since the dawn of time, had to deal with several catastrophes, natural and non, and with epidemics such as the Black Death or the Spanish Flu which in the not too far 1918/20 killed between 50 and 100 millions of people.

The triumph of Death – 1446 circa

Above: Picture in the Public Domain

The Medieval historian Michael McCormick from Harvard University affirms that the 536 AD was by far the worst year for the Earth Planet and its inhabitants. In an interview in fact he declared:

It’s been the beginning of one of the worst periods ever seen, if not “the” worst

In that dramatic 536 there had been neither a heavier pestilence than the usual, nor a particularly bloody war. What made the researcher state such a thing then?

The disaster arrived from the sky, in the form of a thick mist which covered with a dark coat the entire European continent, the Middle East and part of Asia. For 18 months “the sun lit up without any light, like the moon, during the whole year”, wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea. The temperature dropped drastically, going all the way down to (almost) zero°C during the whole summer. This was the beginning of a cold decade, the coldest in the last 2300 years.

The landscape of Java after an eruption


Above: Picture in the Public Domain

“…From the 24th of March of this year until the 24th of June of the next year […] the winter was rigid, so rigid that the birds died due to the coldness..” (Zacharias Scholasticus – Chronicle)”.

A sunless year then, a long winter which caused famine almost everywhere. In China it snowed in the middle of summer, there was no harvest and people died of starvation; in Ireland between the 536 AD and the 539 AD the production of bread stopped.

How did that thick mist form?

It was well known for some time that around the middle of the 6th century a period of darkness had descended on earth, but what caused the phenomenon had remained a mystery. In the ’90s some research on trees rings suggested that around the middle of 500 AD the summers had been unusually cold. A later study found out that the Antarctic ice had violent volcanic eruption traces, supposedly taken place between the end of the year 535 and beginning of 536. The researchers hypothesised that this had happened in North America, but what the analysis to the layered ice in the Colle Gnifetti (Signalkuppe) glacier indicated was different.

The glacier of Colle Gnifetti


Above: image source Maine University

The study was made by the team of researchers guided by McCormick, in collaboration with the glacier expert Paul Mayewski. The ice cylinder analysed by the team reveals tales of storms which were carrying the sand from the Sahara, of the pollution due to the mankind activities and the ashed rained from the sky after violent eruptions.

Above: Picture in the Public Domain

Two particles of volcanic glass demonstrated a similar chemical composition to the Icelandic volcanic rocks; apparently the great cold of the 536 AD was caused by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland (even though for many researchers it’s too early to affirm this with certainty). In any case wherever the phenomenon happened, that was the fact which brought cold,  famine and death in most of our planet.

In 540 AD and 547 two other eruptions occurred; in the meantime in 541 a pestilence starting from Egypt rapidly propagated throughout the Byzantine Empire, killing more than a third of the population and accelerating the loss of Western lands, reconquered by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

According to the researchers, in Europe it took about a century for the economy to recover, fact deduced from the glacials of Colle Gnifetti, still. It has been found out that in  640 AD there was a peak of lead, index that shows how the demand of silver was once again active. The vanishing of lead in the Alpine glaciers between the 1349 and 1353  was the sign of another tremendous period in the history of men, i.e. the Black Death. But this, is another story.

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