Abstract: What Horrible Thing Happened Around the World in AD 536?


The few literate cultures in AD 536 recorded intense cold, crop failures, starvation, and deaths.  About 75% of the people in a northern Chinese kingdom died.  Similar problems were reported around the Mediterranean.   Tree rings in North America, Europe, and Asia record 15 years of cold beginning in AD 536.  Ice cores in Greenland and in Antarctica record a dramatic increase in sulfur in the same year, indicating a volcanic eruption was the cause, and not an asteroid impact.  The worldwide sulfur circulation indicates an eruption in a tropical latitude, and the greater sulfur in Greenland indicates an eruption north of the equator.

Since 1969 I have been investigating the eruption of Ilopango volcano in El Salvador, at 14o north latitude.  I have struggled with radiocarbon dating, but recent improvements and work with colleagues have indicated the eruption must have occurred more recently than the 5th century.  It appears the Ilopango eruption is the most likely candidate for the worst worldwide disaster in the past few millennia.

The presentation includes literate records of the disaster, dendroclimatological dating of the long cold period, ice core records of sulfur spikes, possible impacts on non-literate societies, research in El Salvador on the Ilopango eruption, and recent results of deep-sea drilling by German scientists.  With the contributions from multiple disciplines, it appears we are moving toward understanding what happened in AD 536 and afterward.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Joel Gunn, Editor, 2000.  The Years without Summer: Tracing AD 536 and its AftermathBritish Archaeological Papers, International Series 872. Archaeopress, Hadrian Books, Oxford, England.

Larsen, L. B. et al., 2008.  New Ice Core Evidence for a Volcanic Cause of the AD 536 Dust Veil. Geophysical Research Letters 35: L04708. 

Oppenheimer, Clive, 2011.  Eruptions that Shook the World.  Cambridge University Press.

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