Late Antique Little Ice Age underpinned unrest and upheaval in Europe and Asia

by Mary Caperton Morton
Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Effects of climate change on society aren’t just a contemporary concern. A new study has found that a cold snap in the sixth and seventh centuries may have been the catalyst for a period of societal turmoil, marked by famine, plague and political tumult.

Using tree-ring chronologies sourced from the Russian Altai and European Alps, a team led by Ulf Büntgen of the Swiss Federal Research Institute identified a period of cooler temperatures between A.D. 536 and 600 that they have named the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The time period follows a series of large volcanic eruptions in 536, 540 and 547 that may have set off a cooling feedback cycle throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

This period also coincides with social upheaval stretching from Western Europe to East Asia, including the spread of the Justinian plague in the Mediterranean, the maturation of the eastern Roman Empire, the collapse of the Sassanian Empire in the Middle East, mass migrations out of the Asian steppe and Arabian Peninsula, the spread of Slavic-speaking people out of the Balkans, and political unrest in China, the team wrote in Nature Geoscience.

Establishing cause and effect when it comes to changing climates and societies can be tricky, but “in the case of the Late Antique Little Ice Age, we seem to have a pretty clear a priori case for assuming that a dramatic period of cooling, that can be dated reasonably precisely and that coincided with substantial societal change across a large part of Earth’s surface, had a causal impact,” wrote John Haldon of Princeton University in New Jersey, in a commentary in Nature Geoscience.

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