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The Worst Year to Be Alive

During this year the most dread portent took place. The Sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the Sun in eclipse.

— Procopius of Caesarea

As we all know by now, 2020 was a difficult year to inhabit Earth. For many of us, the year might have been the worst we have experienced. Its ramifications will, undoubtedly, stretch far into the future. But was it the worst year to be alive in human history?

According to some scientists and historians, the answer is a clear no.

The worst year to have been a human being, according to medieval historian Michael McCormick, is 536. Other candidates include 1349, when the Black Plague ravaged the world, and 1918, when the Spanish Flu wiped out somewhere between 50 and 100 million people. But to McCormick, 536 leaves 2020 and those dark moments in the dust.

Tree ring data shows a historically meager year in 536

Scientists had long known, thanks to dendrochronological data, that 536 was a bad year for trees. Their rings show historically small growth sessions. As you can see in the image above, 536 joined 1601 and 1815 as abnormally low-growth years when compared to the 2000 year average. The dips in 1601 and 1815 were caused by known volcanic events. As we studied last Halloween, the 1815 eruption of Tambora caused the Year Without a Summer in 1816 which contributed to Mary Shelley’s composition of Frankenstein. But 536 has long been a mystery. Obviously. scientific monitoring of the planet was not what it is today or even what it was in 1601. What caused the anomaly of 536?

In 2018, glaciologists discovered a potential answer in ice from Switzerland. A team drilled an ice core over 200 feet long to peer into the past. The ashprint was clear: in early 536 a massive volcanic eruption occurred. Further, the study pinpointed Iceland as the epicenter of the disaster.

After the eruption, winds took the belch and distributed it over the entire planet. As we noted above, other massive volcanic activity has wreaked havoc. Why was 536 worse than those years?

The sky cover was so bad that it was described as a fog. The fog lasted for 18 months! Various historical accounts, including that of Procopius of Caesarea, corroborate that observation. A year and a half is a long time to have no sunlight. You can imagine the effect it had on agriculture and humanity.

Temperatures dropped 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius that year, ushering in the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. In China, during the summer, snow fell. Historical chronicles in Ireland note that crops used for making bread failed for three straight years. After the darkness ended, the apocalyptic landscape remained. Just when people thought they might rebound, another eruption transpired in 540, followed by an outbreak of bubonic plague in 541, and another massive eruption in 547. 536 was so bad it ruined the next decade.

The decade caused an economic downturn for a full century. By 640, the trees and glaciers tell a story of abundant silver mining, which is connected to a return to a more prosperous economy. The period later took on the name Late Antique Little Ice Age.

Mining an ice core - photo by Nichole Spaulding

As bad as 2020 was and as sadly as 2021 has begun, I think I’ll stick to the 21st century instead of choosing to time travel to 536 for 18 months of darkness and a decade of famine. Most of the time, things can always be worse! 

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