Contemporary chroniclers wrote about a "mystery cloud" which dimmed the light of the sun above the Mediterranean in the years 536 and 537 CE. Tree rings testify poor growing conditions over the whole Northern Hemisphere - the years from 536 CE onward seem to have been overshadowed by an unusual natural phenomenon. Social crises including the first European plague pandemic beginning in 541, are associated with this phenomenon. Only recently have researchers found conclusive proof of a volcanic origin of the 536 solar dimming, based on traces of volcanic sulfur from two major eruptions newly dated to 536 CE and 540 CE in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica.
An international team of climate scientists led by Dr. Matthew Toohey at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and Prof. Dr. Kirstin Krüger of the University of Oslo (UiO), with financial support from the Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the UiO, have investigated the time period using the new ice core data, historical evidence and climate models. As they write in the international journal Climatic Change, the impact of the volcanic double event of 536/540 on Northern Hemisphere climate was stronger than any other documented or reconstructed event of the past 1200 years. "One of the eruptions would have led to a significant cooling of the Earth's surface. Two of them, so close in time, caused what is probably the coldest decade of the past 2000 years," says Dr. Matthew Toohey from GEOMAR, lead author of the study today at a press conference at the annual EGU Meeting in Vienna where he presented the results.
To simulate the impact of the 536 and 540 eruptions, the scientists used the available data from ice cores and the descriptions of the solar dimming from contemporary scholars. With this data they estimated the magnitude of the eruptions and their approximate locations on Earth, and then simulated the spread and impacts of the aerosol clouds resulting from the volcanic injection of sulfur into the stratosphere. This revealed that following the eruptions, the solar radiation at the Earth's surface was strongly reduced over the Northern Hemisphere for several years, and caused decreases in the hemispheric average temperature of up to 2 degrees Celsius.