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Scientists finally explain the Moon's mysterious disappearance and the cause of a global famine in 1110 AD.
While the opening line of this article sounds like a bait and switch classic, every written word is true, and the Moon actually disappeared from sight on 5th May 1110 AD. Now, a team of scientific researchers thinks “forgotten volcanic eruptions” might explain curious historical astronomical accounts of the Moon “vanishing.”
An unnamed Anglo-Saxon writer created the Peterborough Chronicle , a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , which was copied and continued after the Norman Conquest , and it provides the year 1135 AD as the so-called Final Continuation to the Peterborough Chronicle . This text records the year 1110 AD as bringing severe climatology in the form of torrential rainfall, which caused nationwide famine and that on the “fifth night in the month of May,” the Moon shone bright in the evening but as night came, it was “completely extinguished” that neither “light, nor orb, nor anything at all of it was seen.”
The initial page of the Peterborough Chronicle, marked secondarily by the librarian of the Laud collection. The manuscript is an autograph of the monastic scribes of Peterborough. (Hchc2009 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Aiming to establish what made the Moon disappear in May 1110 AD, a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports first negates the two most obvious explanations, cloud cover or an eclipse. A Live Science article explains that if clouds had been the cause, the chronicler wouldn’t have recorded the “bright and twinkling stars,” while the Moon faded from view, and if the Moon had been eclipsed by the Earth's shadow, the writer would have seen it turning an orangey-red color, and not vanishing in the sky.
A Spectacular Astronomical Optical Phenomenon
To account for this apparently supernatural astronomical occurrence the team of scientists looked at ice core samples, which pointed to several closely spaced volcanic eruptions that may have occurred in Europe or Asia between 1108 and 1110 AD. They wrote that the “spectacular atmospheric optical phenomena” associated with high-altitude volcanic aerosols have caught the attention of chroniclers since ancient times, and they believe these volcanic events caused the apparent disappearance of the Moon.
Representation of an erupting volcano. ( Ingo Bartussek / Adobe stock)
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Perhaps releasing towering clouds of ash that cloaked the world’s atmosphere for several years, said the scientists, this “forgotten cluster of eruptions” is so called because of the sparsity of records pertaining to them at the time. And their suspicions that a high-altitude veil of volcanic aerosols momentarily blotted out the Moon, as is recorded in the Peterborough Chronicle, which is supported by the records of heavier than normal rains, because a series of large volcanic eruptions would have significantly disrupted the world’s climate “causing or exacerbated the cold, wet weather that made life so miserable in 1110 AD,” the researchers speculated.
Fire in the Sky Caused Charred Fields and Global Famine
Bringing their speculations into the zone of tested scientific fact, to determine the types of particles in the atmosphere in 1110 AD, the team searched for evidence of these forgotten volcanic eruptions in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica. An increase in sulfate aerosols was observed in both cores between 1108 and 1110 AD, and because sulfates come from volcanoes, it suggests the stratosphere was full of burnt volcanic materials.
Further to cement speculations, the team assembled 13 written historical accounts of crop failure and a global famine caused by heavy rain from the same time period, and also a study of tree rings, which expand in response to climate patterns, revealed that 1109 AD was “an unusually cold, wet year in Western Europe comparable to the effects of several other major volcanic eruptions from history.”
A Climate Catastrophe With Eastern Origins
To have signed and sealed the ideas presented in this new paper, the scientists would have needed to find evidence of an actual volcanic eruption, and not just environmental signatures, which suggest or indicate such events, and while they admit the sources of the speculated upon eruptions remain unknown, they point towards a Japanese writer between 1062 and 1141 AD who said Mount Asama in central Japan “began erupting in late August 1108 AD” and that the occurrence lasted until October of that year.
Mount Asama in Honshū in Japan. ( Toru Shimizu / Adobe stock)
This Japanese account describes “fire in the sky, scorching fields” and the team think it plausible that it might have contributed to the sulfate spike they observed in the Greenland ice core, and they also think it is feasible that this eruption polluted the atmosphere with enough aerosols to “induce the eclipse two years later, and they say it provides the best solution yet for the case of the “disappearing Moon,” the team concluded.
Moon's mysterious disappearance 900 years ago finally gets an explanation
A series of 'forgotten' volcanic eruptions could explain accounts of the moon 'vanishing' in A.D. 1110.
There's no use sugar coating it: According to one scribe in medieval England, A.D. 1110 was a "disastrous year." Torrential rainfall damaged crops, famine stalked the land — and, as if that wasn't bad enough, on one fateful night in May, the moon simply vanished from the sky.
"On the fifth night in the month of May appeared the moon shining bright in the evening, and afterwards by little and little its light diminished," the unnamed scribe wrote in the Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the Peterborough Chronicle. "As soon as night came, it was so completely extinguished withal, that neither light, nor orb, nor anything at all of it was seen. And so it continued nearly until day, and then appeared shining full and bright."
Clouds weren't the problem if they were, the scribe would not go on to describe how bright and twinkling the stars appeared while the moon faded from view. Nor was the moon being eclipsed by Earth's shadow — if it was, the skywatcher would have seen the orb become a coppery "blood moon," not an eerie blank spot in the sky.
So, what made the moon disappear in an already dismal year? According to a study published April 21 in the journal Scientific Reports, the explanation for both the moon's mysterious vanishing act and the rain-ravaged summer that followed may be one and the same — volcanoes.
"The spectacular atmospheric optical phenomena associated with high-altitude volcanic aerosols have caught the attention of chroniclers since ancient times," the study authors wrote. "Careful evaluation of ice core records points to the occurrence of several closely spaced volcanic eruptions," which may have occurred in Europe or Asia between A.D. 1108 and A.D. 1110.
Those volcanic events, which the researchers call a "forgotten cluster" of eruptions because they were sparsely documented by historians at the time, may have released towering clouds of ash that traveled far around the world for years on end. Not only could a high-altitude veil of volcanic aerosols blot out the moon while leaving many stars unobscured, as the Peterborough writer described, but a series of large eruptions could have also disrupted the global climate, the researcher wrote, causing or exacerbated the cold, wet weather that made life so miserable in A.D. 1110.
One such eruption, which occurred in Japan in A.D. 1108, could be to blame, the team said.
The Worst Time in History to Be Alive, According to Science
The ninth plague of Egypt was complete darkness that lasted for three days. But in 536 A.D., much of the world went dark for a full 18 months, as a mysterious fog rolled over Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia. The fog blocked the sun during the day, causing temperatures to drop, crops to fail and people to die. It was, you might say, the literal Dark Age.
Now, researchers have discovered one of the main sources of that fog. The team reported in Antiquity that a volcanic eruption in Iceland in early 536 helped spread ash across the Northern Hemisphere, creating the fog. Like the 1815 Mount Tambora eruption—the deadliest volcanic eruption on record—this eruption was big enough to alter global climate patterns, causing years of famine.
What exactly did the first 18 months of darkness look like? The Byzantine historian Procopius wrote that “the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” He also wrote that it seemed like the sun was constantly in eclipse and that during this time, “men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death.”
The drilling site (under the dome tent) on Colle Gnifetti and a detailed view of a section of the core that revealed details of the year 536.
Accounts like these weren’t taken very seriously until the 1990s, says Michael McCormick, a history professor at Harvard University and co-author of the Antiquity paper. That decade, researchers examined tree rings in Ireland and found that something weird did happen around 536. Summers in Europe and Asia became 35ଏ to 37ଏ colder, with China even reporting summer snow. This Late Antique Little Ice Age, as it’s known, came about when volcanic ash blocked out the sun.
“It was a pretty drastic change it happened overnight,” McCormick says. “The ancient witnesses really were onto something. They were not being hysterical or imagining the end of the world.”
With this realization, accounts of 536 become newly horrifying. “We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon,” wrote Cassiodorus, a Roman politician. He also wrote that the sun had a 𠇋luish” color, the moon had lost its luster and the “seasons seem to be all jumbled up together.”
The effects of the 536 eruption were compounded by eruptions in 540 and 547, and it took a long time for the Northern Hemisphere to recover. “The Late Antique Little Ice Age that began in the spring of 536 lasted in western Europe until about 660, and it lasted until about 680 in Central Asia,” McCormick says.
"It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," McCormick told Science.
This period of cold and starvation caused economic stagnation in Europe that intensified in 541 when the first bubonic plague broke out. The plague killed between one-third and one-half of the population in the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire.
There might still be other, undiscovered volcanic eruptions that contributed to the 536 fog, says Andrei Kurbatov, an Earth and climate sciences professor at the University of Maine and another co-author of the Antiquity paper. However, we now know at least one of the reasons people in 536 couldn’t see their own shadows𠅎ven at noon.
The secret of the night the moon disappeared completely from the sky in 1110
Scientists from the University of Geneva in Switzerland reached the reason behind the strange phenomenon that has puzzled astronomers for a thousand years, which is the disappearance of the moon completely from the sky in 1110, unlike any other lunar eclipse, when the moon's plan remains a little visible.
Although this event was well known in the history of astronomy, researchers have never thought that it might have been caused by the presence of volcanic aerosols, which is the most likely cause.
This is indicated by the new study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports on April 21, when researchers believe that they were able to finally solve the mystery, by analyzing the ice cores, which are samples taken from the depths of the plates or glaciers.
The lunar eclipse
, through analysis of icy cores as well as tree rings, found that the year 1109 was much cooler than 1108, indicating a thin layer of aerosols or suspended particles in the atmosphere.
A series of volcanic eruptions around the world had pumped dust and sulfur into the atmosphere in the years before the moon's fading phenomenon, and the team explains that this is probably the reason why the moon was invisible during an eclipse of the moon in 1110.
The eclipse had occurred in May 1110, and had been recorded by the writer of the Peterborough Chronicle, the Anglo-Saxon factsheet during the Norman occupation of the British Isles.
The clerk of the facts talks about the exceptional darkness of the moon saying, "On the fifth night of May the moon appeared shining brightly in the evening, and soon after that, its light diminished, and as soon as night fell, it was completely extinguished, so that no light, no orb, or anything on Launch. "
Centuries later, the English astronomer George Frederick Chambers wrote of it, saying, "It is clear that this eclipse was like a black eclipse when the moon became completely invisible rather than shining with a familiar copper color."
|In the years leading up to the disappearance of the moon, there was a series of volcanic eruptions around the world that pumped dust and sulfur into the atmosphere (Pixabay)|
Scientists have tried to determine the volcano responsible for the sulfur cloud that led to the disappearance of Moon 1110, by collecting a number of evidence.
While it is impossible to know with certainty, the research team believes that it is more likely that it is the Japanese "Mount Asama" volcano, which produced a giant eruption that lasted months in 1108, and was much larger than a subsequent eruption in 1783 in which it killed more than 1400 people.
As stated in the notes of a statesman (Japan) in the year 1108 that "there was fire at the top of the volcano, and everywhere the rice fields became unfit for cultivation. We have never seen this in the country. This is strange and rare."
Other historical documents, especially calculations of climate and societal impacts in the years 1109-1111 CE, confirm the hypothesis that the eruption of 1108 or the series of eruptions that began in that year has led to catastrophic effects on the affected communities.
The researchers found "an abundance of testimonies indicating bad weather, crop failure, and famine in these years," stressing that "the evidence gathered indicates that the difficulties that began in 1109 deepened starvation in several regions of Western Europe."
For a long period of time, these difficulties were not considered the result of a volcanic eruption, but researchers say that all evidence points to a "forgotten" set of volcanic eruptions in 1108 to 1110 caused terrible consequences for humanity, "we are only rediscovering it now." It was also the cause of the disappearance of Moon 1110.
The researchers wrote in the study that a unique medieval note about the "dark" total lunar eclipse attests to dust over Europe in May 1110, which confirmed the results of the revised chronology of the ice cores.
Moreover, careful evaluation of records of ice cores indicates that several convergent volcanic eruptions occurred between 1108 and 1110 CE.
Mysterious Moon Eclipse In The Year 1110 Blamed On Volcanic Eruption
A view of the moon during a Lunar Eclipse, on January 10, 2020 in New Delhi, India.
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
On the night of May 5th of the year 1110, the full Moon suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from view. According to a contemporary testimony preserved in Anglo-Saxon chronicles, the Moon "completely vanished, nor light, nor its shape, nor anything was visible, despite the night sky was clear with no clouds." It wasn't a simple eclipse, as a research team from the University of Geneva concluded, but likely a cloud of volcanic dust blocking the Moon's light in the higher layers of Earth's atmosphere.
The ash from volcanic eruptions can cause various unusual atmospheric phenomena, like a brightly colored sky during sunrise and sunset, a pale sun or glowing clouds, as the fine volcanic ash particles scatter or reflect the sunlight. The research team searched for evidence of a volcanic eruption occurring around the time of the mysterious eclipse and its effects on Earth's atmosphere.
Ice layers preserve sulfur compounds emitted in high concentrations into Earth's atmosphere during powerful volcanic eruptions. Tree-ring series document the climate during the growing phase of a tree. Large enough volcanic eruptions can cause a global drop in temperatures, slowing down the growth of plants. Combing both records, the research team discovered that a spike of sulfur in ice layers from Greenland coincides with a significant drop in temperatures, almost 1.5°C, on a global scale beginning with the year 1109.
The research also pinpoints a likely volcanic candidate. Historic documents describe the eruption of Mount Asama in Japan in August and October 1108. The ash emitted by the volcano was enough to "cover the garden of the governor, and working on the buried fields became impossible."
The eruption was, according to the study published in Scientific Reports, one of the most powerful the last 10,000 years and large enough to send large quantities of volcanic dust into Earth's atmosphere.
Bubonic plague, famine, war and flu pandemics have made some periods of human history infamous for death and suffering but one year stands above the rest in terms of misery 536AD.
According to research from a Harvard professor, it is a prime candidate for the unfortunate accolade of the worst year in the entirety of recorded history.
Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia were plunged into 18 months of solid darkness by a mysterious fog.
It caused snowfall in China, continental-scale crop failure, extreme drought, famine and disease throughout most of the northern hemisphere.
The bleak year was triggered by a cataclysmic Icelandic eruption, scientists say, and was an ominous omen for a bleak century of suffering and death.
According to research from a Harvard professor, the year 536AD is a prime candidate for the unfortunate accolade as the worst year in the entirety of human history. The bleak year kick-started the coldest decade for more than two millennia
Michael McCormick, a Harvard University archaeologist and medieval historian, told Science Magazine that the world did not show signs of recovery until 640AD.
'It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,' Dr McCormick said.
The eerie fog created a drab world with darkness residing over the northern hemisphere for 18 months, with an unrelenting dusk persevering through day and night.
Effects on the climate were so severe that the Irish chronicles tell of 'a failure of bread from the years 536&ndash539'.
Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell between 1.5°C (2.7°F) and 2.5°C (4.5°F), initiating the coldest decade in the past 2,300 years.
The international devastation triggered by the unidentified fog gave rise to the moniker 'The Dark Ages' which has been used to refer to this ominous time.
Causes of the event have remained a mystery to scientists since it was first discovered via tree ring analysis that the world's temperature dipped for several years at this point in time.
Dr McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono believe to have finally put the riddle to bed.
In their study, published in the journal Antiquity, the researchers reveal it was likely caused by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland.
Analysis of ice cores - natural time capsules of Earth's geological past - also unearthed that two eruptions followed in 540 AD and 547 AD.
Incessant volcanic activity is believed to have produced millions of tonnes of ash which spread over vast swathes of the world. It caused snowfall in China, continental-scale crop failure and extreme drought and famine throughout most of the northern hemisphere (file photo)
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE YEAR 536AD?
A cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland created a huge cloud that resided over most of the northern hemisphere for 18 months.
The eerie fog caused an unrelenting dusk persevering throughout day and night.
Effects on the climate were so severe that the Irish chronicles tell of 'a failure of bread from the years 536&ndash539'.
Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2,300 years.
This introduced a period of economic ruin which would steadfastly remain in place until a century later.
Incessant volcanic activity is believed to have produced millions of tonnes of ash which spread over vast swathes of the world.
The authors of the study write that this introduced a period of economic ruin which would steadfastly remain in place until a century later.
It was evidence of lead, and subsequently the smelting of silver, which rejuvenated the world's economy and finally abated the suffering triggered by the 536 AD eruption.
The ice core analysis revealed that sulphur, bismuth and tephra deposits precede every unusually cold summer and found one for this beleaguered year.
Spikes in the ice core for lead proved smelting was taking place to create silver and this coincides with the advent of coin minting which helped revive the economy, according to archaeologist Christopher Loveluck of the University of Nottingham.
A further peak in 660AD told the researchers that silver became the coinage of choice, likely due to a lack of gold, and
The effects of volcanic eruptions on recent winters are modest in scale, but historically have been significant.
1991 The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a stratovolcano in the Philippines, cooled global temperatures for about 2–3 years.  1883 The explosion of Krakatoa (Krakatau) may have contributed to volcanic winter-like conditions. The four years following the explosion were unusually cold, and the winter of 1887–1888 included powerful blizzards.  Record snowfalls were recorded worldwide. However, the period of cold winters started with the 1882–1883 winter, months before the Krakatoa eruption. 1815 The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, a stratovolcano in Indonesia. The eruption had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 7. The eruption was the largest in recorded human history and one of largest in the holocene (10,000 years to present). The eruption led to global cooling and worldwide harvest failures caused what came to be known as the "Year Without a Summer" of 1816. Europe, still recuperating from the Napoleonic Wars, suffered from food shortages. Food riots broke out in the United Kingdom and France, and grain warehouses were looted. The violence was worst in landlocked Switzerland, where famine caused the government to declare a national emergency. Huge storms and abnormal rainfall with flooding of Europe's major rivers (including the Rhine) are attributed to the event, as did the August frost. A major typhus epidemic occurred in Ireland between 1816 and 1819, precipitated by the famine. An estimated 100,000 Irish people perished during this period. A BBC documentary, using figures compiled in Switzerland, estimated that the fatality rates in 1816 were twice that of average years, giving an approximate European fatality total of 200,000 deaths. The corn crop in Northeastern North America failed, due to mid-summer frosts in New York State and June snowfalls in New England and Newfoundland and Labrador. The crop failures in New England, Canada, and parts of Europe also caused the price of wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk, and flour to rise sharply. 1783 The eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland released enormous amounts of sulfur dioxide, resulting in the death of much of the island's livestock and a catastrophic famine which killed a quarter of the Icelandic population. It has been estimated that 23,000 British people died from the poisoning.  Northern hemisphere temperatures dropped by about 1 °C in the year following the Laki eruption. The winter of 1783–1784 was very severe, and estimated to have caused 8,000 additional deaths in the UK. The meteorological impact of Laki continued, contributing significantly to several years of extreme weather in Europe. In France, the sequence of extreme weather events contributed significantly to an increase in poverty and famine that may have contributed to the French Revolution in 1789.  Laki was only one factor in a decade of climatic disruption, as Grímsvötn was erupting from 1783 to 1785, and there may have been an unusually strong El Niño effect from 1789 to 1793.  A paper written by Benjamin Franklin in 1783  blamed the unusually cool summer of 1783 in North America on volcanic dust coming from this eruption, though Franklin's proposal has been questioned.  1600 The Huaynaputina in Peru erupted. Tree ring studies show that 1601 was cold. Russia had its worst famine in 1601–1603. From 1600 to 1602, Switzerland, Latvia and Estonia had exceptionally cold winters. The wine harvest was late in 1601 in France, and in Peru and Germany, wine production collapsed. Peach trees bloomed late in China, and Lake Suwa in Japan froze early.  1452 or 1453 A cataclysmic eruption of the submarine volcano Kuwae caused worldwide disruptions. 1315-1317 The Great Famine of 1315–1317 in Europe may have been precipitated by a volcanic event,  perhaps that of Mount Tarawera, New Zealand, lasting about five years.   1257 The 1257 Samalas eruption in Indonesia. The eruption left behind a large caldera next to Rinjani, with Lake Segara Anak inside it.  This eruption probably had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 7, making it one of the largest eruptions of the current Holocene epoch. An examination of ice cores showed a large spike in sulfate deposition around 1257. This was strong evidence of a large eruption having occurred somewhere in the world. In 2013, scientists proved that the eruption occurred at Mount Samalas. This eruption had four distinct phases, alternately creating eruption columns reaching tens of kilometres into the atmosphere and pyroclastic flows burying large parts of Lombok Island. The flows destroyed human habitations, including the city of Pamatan. Ash from the eruption fell as far away as Java Island. The volcano deposited more than 10 cubic kilometres (2.4 cu mi) of material. The eruption was witnessed by people who recorded it on palm leaves, the Babad Lombok. Later volcanic activity created additional volcanic centres in the caldera, including the Barujari cone that remains active. The aerosols injected into the atmosphere reduced the solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface, which cooled the atmosphere for several years and led to famines and crop failures in Europe and elsewhere, although the exact scale of the temperature anomalies and their consequences is still debated. It is possible that the eruption helped trigger the Little Ice Age. 945 or 946 The 946 eruption of Paektu Mountain is believed to have caused a major global climatic impact, with regional anomalies of colder weather and snowfall from 945 to 948. 535 The extreme weather events of 535–536 are most likely linked to a volcanic eruption. The latest theorised explanation is the Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ) eruption of the Ilopango caldera in central El Salvador.  1159 BCE The Hekla 3 eruption in Iceland may have been responsible for the Late Bronze Age collapse around the Eastern Mediterranean by causing crop failures and forced migrations further West among the so-called sea peoples. Toba supereruption A proposed volcanic winter occurred around 71,000–73,000 years ago following the supereruption of Lake Toba on Sumatra island in Indonesia. In the following 6 years there was the highest amount of volcanic sulfur deposited in the last 110,000 years, possibly causing significant deforestation in Southeast Asia and the cooling of global temperatures by 1 °C.  Some scientists hypothesize that the eruption caused an immediate return to a glacial climate by accelerating an ongoing continental glaciation, causing massive population reduction among animals and human beings. Others argue that the climatic effects of the eruption were too weak and brief to impact early human populations to the degree proposed.  This, combined with the abrupt occurrence of most human differentiations in that same period, is a probable case of bottleneck linked to volcanic winters (see Toba catastrophe theory). On average, super-eruptions with total eruptive masses of at least 10 15 kg (Toba eruptive mass = 6.9 × 10 15 kg) occur every 1 million years.  However, archaeologists who in 2013 found a microscopic layer of glassy volcanic ash in sediments of Lake Malawi, and definitively linked the ash to the 75,000-year-old Toba super-eruption, went on to note a complete absence of the change in fossil type close to the ash layer that would be expected following a severe volcanic winter. This result led the archaeologists to conclude that the largest known volcanic eruption in the history of the human species did not significantly alter the climate of East Africa.  
The causes of the population bottleneck – a sharp decrease in a species' population, immediately followed by a period of great genetic divergence (differentiation) among survivors – is attributed to volcanic winters by some researchers. Such events may diminish populations to "levels low enough for evolutionary changes, which occur much faster in small populations, to produce rapid population differentiation".  With the Lake Toba bottleneck, many species showed massive effects of narrowing of the gene pool, and Toba may have reduced the human population to between 40,000 and 15,000 or even fewer. 
Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’
Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he's got an answer: "536." Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, "It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.
A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year," wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China crops failed people starved. The Irish chronicles record "a failure of bread from the years 536–539." Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.
Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit. At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640, when another signal in the ice—a spike in airborne lead—marks a resurgence of silver mining, as the team reports in Antiquity this week.
To Kyle Harper, provost and a medieval and Roman historian at The University of Oklahoma in Norman, the detailed log of natural disasters and human pollution frozen into the ice "give us a new kind of record for understanding the concatenation of human and natural causes that led to the fall of the Roman Empire—and the earliest stirrings of this new medieval economy."
Slivers from a Swiss ice core held chemical clues to natural and humanmade events.
Ever since tree ring studies in the 1990s suggested the summers around the year 540 were unusually cold, researchers have hunted for the cause. Three years ago polar ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica yielded a clue. When a volcano erupts, it spews sulfur, bismuth, and other substances high into the atmosphere, where they form an aerosol veil that reflects the sun's light back into space, cooling the planet. By matching the ice record of these chemical traces with tree ring records of climate, a team led by Michael Sigl, now of the University of Bern, found that nearly every unusually cold summer over the past 2500 years was preceded by a volcanic eruption. A massive eruption—perhaps in North America, the team suggested—stood out in late 535 or early 536 another followed in 540. Sigl's team concluded that the double blow explained the prolonged dark and cold.
Mayewski and his interdisciplinary team decided to look for the same eruptions in an ice core drilled in 2013 in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps. The 72-meter-long core entombs more than 2000 years of fallout from volcanoes, Saharan dust storms, and human activities smack in the center of Europe. The team deciphered this record using a new ultra–high-resolution method, in which a laser carves 120-micron slivers of ice, representing just a few days or weeks of snowfall, along the length of the core. Each of the samples—some 50,000 from each meter of the core—is analyzed for about a dozen elements. The approach enabled the team to pinpoint storms, volcanic eruptions, and lead pollution down to the month or even less, going back 2000 years, says UM volcanologist Andrei Kurbatov.
The Moon Mysteriously Disappeared 900 Years Ago, and Scientists Think They Know Why
About 900 years ago, a skywatcher in England witnessed a total lunar eclipse that must have been baffling, even terrifying. Despite the fact that the night was clear and the stars shone bright, the Moon just…vanished.
During the unusually dark ecliptic blackout, the Moon was “so completely extinguished withal, that neither light, nor orb, nor anything at all of it was seen,” the person reported in a manuscript called the Peterborough Chronicle, adding that the dark Moon 𠇌ontinued nearly until day, and then appeared shining full and bright.” In the millennium since, nobody has come up with a comprehensive explanation for this bizarre occurrence.
To explain what might have caused this eerily black eclipse, which occurred on the night of May 5, 1110, a team of scientists examined tree rings, surveyed ice cores, and scoured historical archives. In a recent paper published in Scientific Reports, the researchers suggest that a “𠆏orgotten’ cluster of volcanic eruptions” from 1108 to 1110, possibly from Japan’s deadly Mount Asama, ejected a 𠇍ust veil” over Europe, which created the shadowy eclipse.
“I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to work with old trees, ancient texts, and ice-core data,” said lead author Sstien Guillet, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Geneva, in an email. “I feel like a time traveler.”
That said, it takes a lot of time and concentration to accumulate natural records of ice cores and tree rings, let alone hunting for relevant information in historical sources from 12th century Europe, most of which are in Latin. “Sometimes you can spend days reading old texts without finding any relevant information related to weather or climate,” Guillet noted. “You have to be patient.”
Fortunately, the team’s efforts, which began in 2016, have culminated in a fascinating interdisciplinary collection of records.
As the authors note in the study, the rkest total lunar eclipses” recorded since 1600 CE “have all been linked to large volcanic eruptions and the Peterborough Chronicle offers “one of the longest and most detailed accounts we are aware of for any dark lunar eclipse occurring between 500 and 1800 CE”, which sparked a search for likely volcanic events that may have led to it.
“The idea that the dark total lunar of May 1110 eclipse was connected to volcanism came actually quite easily,” Guillet said. “The darkness of the 1110 total lunar eclipse has, indeed, long caught the attention of astronomers and we knew about the existence of this intriguing eclipse long before we started to work on the 1108-1110 eruptions.”
Guillet and his colleagues looked for hints of major volcanic activity in ancient ice cores extracted from Greenland and Antarctica. These cores are treasure troves of information about the past climate, including volcanic eruptions, which can sprinkle ash and aerosols all around the world.
The team studied spikes in sulfate aerosols in the cores before and during the year 1110, when the dark eclipse happened, indicating that volcanic eruptions had belched fumes into the stratosphere around that time. When compared against the other known volcanic eruptions that occurred over the past 1,000 years, this volcanic event ranks seventh in terms of how much sulfur it injected into the atmosphere.
To bolster these observations, the researchers hunted down tree ring records that span this period, because these patterns inside trees grow in response to seasonal climate patterns. The rings suggested that the year 1109 in Western Europe was unusually cold and rainy, an anomaly that may have been caused or exacerbated by the global effects of a volcano spewing dust and ash into the skies.
The dreary weather documented in the tree rings is backed up by historical accounts that Guillet’s team collected. In Ireland, people fasted and gave alms to God so that the “heavy rain and bad weather in the summer and autumn might be dispelled,” according to the manuscript Annals of Inisfallen. As crops failed, famines in France broke out that “killed off many people and reduced countless numbers of rich people to poverty,” as recorded in the Chronicle of Morigny. Meanwhile, the Peterborough Chronicle, which contains the account of the dark lunar eclipse, attests that 1110 was 𠇊 very disastrous year.”
Though these climatic and social upheavals no doubt had complex origins, Guillet and his colleagues think the combination of natural and historical evidence points to a cluster of major eruptions as a factor. One likely culprit is Mount Asama, an active volcano on the main island of Japan. The volcano is known to have exploded in a catastrophic eruption in 1108, thanks to a contemporary statesman named Fujiwara no Munetada who chronicled it in a diary called Chūyūki.
However, it will take more research to track down the exact sources of this ancient stratospheric dust veil, as it’s probable that many eruptions contributed to this 𠇍isastrous year” of famines and creepy dark skies.
“We suggested in the study that Mount Asama in Japan contributed to sulfur deposition in Greenland but this hypothesis still needs to be confirmed,” Guillet said. “Hopefully one day we will be able to validate or invalidate this hypothesis.”
For instance, the team suggested that future research could focus on characterizing the “tephra,” or volcanic debris, found in ice cores from this time, as it could contain geochemical signatures that can be linked to specific volcanoes.
The new research is a reminder that our planet, and its civilizations, are deeply interconnected. A natural disaster in one corner of the world can throw communities thousands of miles away into turmoil, and can even darken the Moon on a clear night.
“Many more eruptions are evident from ice core records and several of them have never been studied in detail,” Guillet concluded. “Therefore, there&aposs still plenty of work to do to better understand the influence of large eruptions on the climate system and to which degree these eruptions impacted (or not) past societies.”
Update : This article has been updated with comments from paleoclimatologist Sstien Guillet.
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