Why 536 was 'the worst year to be alive'
November 20, 2018 2:27 PM   Subscribe

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... Ann Gibbons writes 1300 words for Science.
posted by cgc373 (41 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
 
'the worst year to be alive'

an excellent year to die
posted by pracowity at 2:34 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


proposal to measure the badness of years during the Byzantine Empire’s existence in terms of the Justinian Historical Panic Level, or JHPL.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:50 PM on November 20, 2018 [57 favorites]


Previous estimates had ranged from approximately 8th grade to freshman year of high school.
posted by theory at 2:54 PM on November 20, 2018 [45 favorites]


Whoa whoa I think we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. 2018 isn't even over yet.
posted by General Malaise at 3:00 PM on November 20, 2018 [32 favorites]


On the other hand, in 536, there was nearly a millenium and a half of insulation between them and the Kardashians.

So it kind of balanced out.
posted by delfin at 3:05 PM on November 20, 2018 [14 favorites]


proposal to measure the badness of years during the Byzantine Empire’s existence in terms of the Justinian Historical Panic Level, or JHPL.

At the time, of course, it was referred to as the Justinian Current Plague Level.
posted by robotdevil at 3:14 PM on November 20, 2018 [14 favorites]


Amazing how much they can tell from Ice.
posted by Guide Your Health at 3:22 PM on November 20, 2018




*Ramshackle collection of wooden huts, floating on pontoons. Sign, illuminated by blazing sun, reads “Harvard University”*

FUTURE HISTORIAN: Can you believe how lucky historians were, back in the 21st century? They had ice to use in their research on disasters that had befallen previous civilizations!!

FUTURE HISTORIAN 2 [angrily]: Wait, how do you know that? Thanks to their insistence on storing information on fragile magnetic storage media, all records of the 21st century were lost in the Great Unravelling!
posted by chappell, ambrose at 3:27 PM on November 20, 2018 [29 favorites]


Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!

I always wonder why we haven’t seen more similar eruptions in modern history, especially since there was a sequence of them in the 6th century. Is this one of those things that could theoretically happen again (like Mt. Vesuvius), or has volcanic activity in Iceland changed since then?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:52 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


this is such an awesome thread!!!

1) this stuff is catnip for me. so f'ing cooooool!!
2) hella funny comments here MeFites
posted by supermedusa at 4:04 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


Wait, how do you know that? Thanks to their insistence on storing information on fragile magnetic storage media, all records of the 21st century were lost in the Great Unravelling!

We wouldn't know anything about the 20th century at all if it weren't for the millions of Encarta disks they left behind.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:19 PM on November 20, 2018 [32 favorites]


has volcanic activity in Iceland changed since then?

Since we don't yet know which volcano might have been responsible for this eruption, we don't know the timescale on which its eruptions have historically occurred.

Recent-ish eruptions have had global cooling effects on a smaller scale. After Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991 global temperatures dropped about .6 °C over a period of about 15 months. El Chichón in Mexico erupted in 1982 and lowered temperatures in the northern hemisphere by about the same amount, though since it was a strong El Niño year the effects were somewhat blunted by warming of sea-surface temperatures -- so it could have been worse.

Going back a little further, the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815 contributed to a reduction of global average temperatures of as much as .1 °C (there were also other, smaller eruptions elsewhere around the same time). This resulted in the famous "Year Without a Summer" (aka Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death), but the cooling effects lingered for the next decade and caused hundreds of thousands of additional deaths due to famine and disease.
posted by theory at 4:20 PM on November 20, 2018 [7 favorites]


What would happen today if we had a volcano like that?
posted by clawsoon at 4:25 PM on November 20, 2018


I love the recent thing about using changes in heavy metals in ice cores to measure historical economies.
A second lead peak reflects silver mining, probably at Melle, France, tied to a switch from gold to silver for coins and the beginnings of the medieval economy
posted by Nelson at 4:30 PM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


Probably also the last time an increase in atmospheric lead was considered "better news".
posted by theory at 4:32 PM on November 20, 2018 [6 favorites]


like theory says we don't currently know what a "volcano like that" was. Pinatubo was a VEI 6 (the scale goes to 8, you do the math) so that was a pretty significant event. I don't believe there has been a VEI 7 since Toba (70K bce)...it would be a global impact, which we are in some ways better situated to withstand, but there are a lot more people to feed now.
posted by supermedusa at 4:43 PM on November 20, 2018 [4 favorites]


no I am totally wrong according to wikipedia we've had many VEI7s...but Toba was a VEI 8. you don't want to meet one in a dark alley.
posted by supermedusa at 4:47 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


> History is just one damn thing after another.

Really, the correct version is "history is just one damn thing after another, and most of those things suck."

Am I going to quote Walter Benjamin in a thread totally unrelated to Walter Benjamin? oh shit yes I am here goes. It's ridiculous that I find this quote cheering, like, I find it a frickin' balm, but such is the nature of our times (and perhaps all times...):
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 4:49 PM on November 20, 2018 [24 favorites]


So what the world needs now is a controlled volcanic event to pushback on current climate trends. Waiting.
posted by waving at 5:02 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


You joke, but deliberately spraying sulfurous aerosols is one potential geoengineering solution to global warming. Also there's a crazy thing going on with a push to more efficient oceangoing ship engines. Right now they burn horrible filthy sulfurous fuel oil and there's an effort to stop that because the stuff kills people. Which will probably significantly contribute to global warming, because the sulfur they're putting in the air is lowering temperatures significantly.
posted by Nelson at 5:04 PM on November 20, 2018 [8 favorites]


2018: Hold my beer.
posted by theora55 at 5:11 PM on November 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


Sorry, the temperature drop from Tambora was 1° not .1°
posted by theory at 5:25 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


FUTURE HISTORIAN 2 [angrily]: Wait, how do you know that? Thanks to their insistence on storing information on fragile magnetic storage media, all records of the 21st century were lost in the Great Unravelling!

Magnetic media is pretty reliable. It's the optical stuff that'll fail you.

Pushes glasses up nose.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:26 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


Can’t believe you’re picking a fight with FUTURE HISTORIAN 2. He’s an expert on this! He has tenure!! And, in terms of numbers, he’s the top 5% of future historians!

(Yes, you read that right: he’s #1 of the 20 historians who remain on earth, in the post-Great Unravelling era!)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:47 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


What would happen today if we had a volcano like that?
posted by clawsoon at 7:25 PM

Ground air traffic for weeks!
posted by clavdivs at 5:51 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


you don't want to meet one in a dark alley

wait, is the alley dark from all the ash, or...?

(thanks for posting, this article is fascinating!)
posted by ragtag at 5:52 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


RNTP, I see your Angel of History Progress and raise you Loki:
...there is quite a bit of evidence that Loki in premodern society was thought to be the causer of knots/tangles/loops, or himself a knot/tangle/loop. Hence, it is natural that Loki is the inventor of the fishnet, which consists of loops and knots, and that the word loki (lokke, lokki, loke, luki) is a term for makers of cobwebs: spiders and the like."[3] Though not prominent in the oldest sources, this identity as a "tangler" may be the etymological meaning of Loki's name.
posted by cenoxo at 6:08 PM on November 20, 2018 [6 favorites]


Amazing how much they can tell from Ice.

All they had to do was stop, collaborate, and listen.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:12 PM on November 20, 2018 [31 favorites]


FIFTH SEASON #27: the sickening season

a series of sulphurous volcanic eruptions caused a substantial drop in temperature in the NoMidLats*. animals fleeing the cold destroyed crops and carried a famine that killed almost a half of a major empire’s population. this was just not a good time to be alive.**


* northern mid-latitudes

** seriously it was just really rough
posted by sixswitch at 7:07 PM on November 20, 2018 [11 favorites]


You say volcano, but I still say it was a wizard.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:16 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


What would happen today if we had a volcano like that?

This is a question subject to hypothesis and testing. Or at least it will be once I get my atomic mole machine in position...
posted by happyroach at 10:02 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


We wouldn't know anything about the 20th century at all if it weren't for the millions of Encarta disks they left behind.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia


Ladies and Gentlemen and non-binaries, I give you my very first: “Eponysterical!”
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:20 PM on November 20, 2018 [14 favorites]


Nelson: "You joke, but deliberately spraying sulfurous aerosols is one potential geoengineering solution to global warming."

And it is something that requires essentially zero tech and is very cheap. Any poor island nation risking inundation could fire up the burners. Of course over do it and Londoners will be skating on Thames for six months out of the year, or worse.

ChurchHatesTucker: "Magnetic media is pretty reliable. It's the optical stuff that'll fail you. "

We'll sort of. We could store information as marks on fired clay sheets and it would last essentially for ever. Data density is low but retention is high.

clavdivs: "Ground air traffic for weeks!"

Which in itself would lower temperatures.
posted by Mitheral at 10:52 PM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon: "proposal to measure the badness of years during the Byzantine Empire’s existence in terms of the Justinian Historical Panic Level, or JHPL."

Life in the late fourth century was no picnic either, let me tell you.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:57 PM on November 20, 2018 [6 favorites]


Here's a chart showing eruptions for which there's evidence of major climate effects over the last thousand years. One important thing to note is that climate effects aren't uniform across the globe, and in fact could be strongly localized. Another caveat is that we haven't been able to conclusively tie many of these eruptions to specific volcanoes yet.

A couple of those eruptions were larger than the previously mentioned 1815 Tambora eruption. One that shows up in ice cores as the strongest sulfate signal of the Common Era was the 1257 Samalas eruption (listed as Rinjani on the chart). That one may have helped kick off the cold period known as the Little Ice Age [note: it wasn't a real ice age]. There's more uncertainty about the other one around 1452-53 which may have been Kuwae. This eruption may have led to the second dip in temperature that prolonged the Little Ice Age.

A slightly smaller eruption that had a famously big effect in Europe was Laki in in 1783. In the ensuing years, wild swings in agricultural output due to extreme weather events are thought to have helped trigger the French Revolution.

Back to the aftermath of the 1815 Tambora eruption -- aside from contributing to the last major food crisis in Europe we may have the eruption to thank for Frankenstein's monster, bicycles, and Mormonism.
posted by theory at 11:48 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


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

Considering that by 536 the Western Roman empire had been gone for nearly a century and the Eastern Roman Empire would go on for another millennium until it was finally destroyed by the ottomans in 1453, I think I have a different meaning for the word "hasten".
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:16 AM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]


We Icelanders are not above letting one of our many volcanoes behave a bit badly, but there's no evidence that there were any volcanic eruptions of that magnitude on the island in the years 536, 530 or 547, according to Icelandic volcanologist Ármann Höskuldsson. Here's an Icelandic language interview and the Google Translation.
posted by Kattullus at 2:56 AM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]


Magnetic media is pretty reliable. It's the optical stuff that'll fail you.

I'll venture that it's compression that'll defeat the future's attempts to understand us. "Looks like these magnetic disks are mostly full of random noise. Oh well. I guess the information must have degraded over time."
posted by clawsoon at 3:41 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


A popular science docu-thingie I watched a couple of years ago—from National Geographic, I think?—linked the 536 event with the Tierra Blanca Joven ash layer in Central America and Lake Ilopango in El Salvador. From Wikipedia:
The caldera collapsed most recently sometime between 410 and 535 AD (based on radiocarbon dating of plant life directly related to the eruption), which produced widespread pyroclastic flows and devastated Mayan cities. The eruption produced about 25 km³ (6.0 cu mi) of tephra (20 times as much as the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens), thus rating a 6 on the (VEI) Volcanic Explosivity Index. The "ash-cloud fallout [...] blanketed an area of at least 10,000 square kilometres waist-deep in pumice and ash", which would have stopped all agricultural endeavor in the area for decades. It is also theorized that the eruption and subsequent weather events and agricultural failures directly led to the abandonment of Teotihiucan by the original inhabitants. There is an opinion that this eruption caused the extreme weather events of 535–536 in Europe.
posted by XMLicious at 5:23 AM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


well clawsoon, I think compression won't be quite the disaster you expect. For one thing, the headers for compressed files all contain uncompressed readable data, and that's often repeated in regular chunks throughout a file or stream. So patterns do emerge, and those patterns are literally dictionaries for decompressing the next N bytes of a stream.

I wouldn't put it past future data historians to suss out gzip fairly quickly, particularly as the DEFLATE algorithm is very well documented in a large number of formats, many deliberately chosen to be durable for just this sort of situation.

In short it's actually three techniques:
  1. Huffman Coding, in which common symbols get shorter bit-strings than uncommon ones, and no symbol is allowed to be the prefix for any other symbol
  2. Lempel-Ziv (1977) where if you spot a pattern you've already seen, you replace it with the location of the first occurrence
  3. Run-Length encoding, where you replace ********** with something shorter that means "ten *s".
By the time our descendants are able to scan bit-streams, they ought to be able to work out byte order packing games and huffman coding techniqes from the 1970s!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 6:53 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]


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