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Xu, H. Extreme Weather Events of 535–536. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 11 December 2023).
Xu H. Extreme Weather Events of 535–536. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed December 11, 2023.
Xu, Handwiki. "Extreme Weather Events of 535–536" Encyclopedia, (accessed December 11, 2023).
Xu, H.(2022, November 23). Extreme Weather Events of 535–536. In Encyclopedia.
Xu, Handwiki. "Extreme Weather Events of 535–536." Encyclopedia. Web. 23 November, 2022.
Extreme Weather Events of 535–536

The extreme weather events of 535–536 were the most severe and protracted short-term episodes of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 2,000 years. The event is thought to have been caused by an extensive atmospheric dust veil, possibly resulting from a large volcanic eruption conjectured to be either in Asia, the Americas, Europe, or other locations. Its effects were widespread, causing unseasonable weather, crop failures, and famines worldwide.

extreme weather events cooling volcanic eruption

1. Documentary Evidence

Byzantine historian Procopius recorded in 536 AD in his report on the wars with the Vandals, "during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness … and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear".[1][2]

In 538, Roman statesman Cassiodorus described the following to one of his subordinates in letter 25:[3]

  • The sun's rays were weak, and it appeared a "bluish" colour.
  • At noon, no shadows from people were visible from people on the ground.
  • The heat from the sun was feeble.
  • The moon, even when full, was "empty of splendour"
  • "A winter without storms, a spring without mildness, and a summer without heat"
  • Prolonged frost and unseasonable drought
  • The seasons "seem to be all jumbled up together"
  • The sky is described as "blended with alien elements" just like cloudy weather, except prolonged. It was "stretched like a hide across the sky" and prevented the "true colours" of the sun and moon from being seen, along with the sun's warmth.
  • Frosts during harvest, which made apples harden and grapes sour.
  • The need to use stored food to last through the situation.
  • Subsequent letters (no. 26 and 27) discuss plans to relieve a widespread famine.

Michael the Syrian (1126–1199), a patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, recorded that during 536–537 the sun shone feebly for a year and a half.[4]

The Gaelic Irish Annals[5][6][7] recorded the following:

  • "A failure of bread in the year 536 AD" – the Annals of Ulster
  • "A failure of bread from the years 536–539 AD" – the Annals of Inisfallen

The mid 10th-century Annales Cambriae record for the year 537:

  • "The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was great mortality in Britain and Ireland." [8] [9]

Further phenomena were reported by a number of independent contemporary sources:

  • Low temperatures, even snow during the summer (snow reportedly fell in August in China, which caused the harvest there to be delayed)[10]
  • Widespread crop failures[11]
  • "A dense, dry fog" in the Middle East, China and Europe[10]
  • Drought in Peru, which affected the Moche culture[10][12]

There are other sources of evidence regarding this period.[13][14][15][16]

2. Scientific Evidence

Tree ring analysis by dendrochronologist Mike Baillie, of the Queen's University of Belfast, shows abnormally little growth in Irish oak in 536 and another sharp drop in 542, after a partial recovery.[17] Ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica show evidence of substantial sulfate deposits in around 534 ± 2, which is evidence of an extensive acidic dust veil.[18]

3. Possible Explanations

It has been conjectured that the changes were caused by ashes or dust thrown into the air after the eruption of a volcano (a phenomenon known as "volcanic winter"),[19] or after the impact of a comet[20] or meteorite.[21][22] The evidence of sulfate deposits in ice cores strongly supports the volcano hypothesis; the sulfate spike is even more intense than that which accompanied the lesser episode of climatic aberration in 1816, popularly known as the "Year Without a Summer", which has been connected to the explosion of the volcano Mount Tambora in Sumbawa.[18]

In 1984, R. B. Stothers postulated that the event might have been caused by the volcano Rabaul in what is now New Britain, in Papua New Guinea.[23]

In 1999, David Keys suggested that the volcano Krakatoa exploded at the time and caused the changes.[19] It is suggested that an eruption of Krakatoa described as occurring in 416 by the Javanese Book of Kings actually took place in 535–536, there being no other evidence of such an eruption in 416.[12]:385

In 2009, Dallas Abbott of Columbia University's Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory in New York published evidence from Greenland ice cores that multiple comet impacts may have caused the haze. The spherules found in the ice might originate from terrestrial debris ejected into the atmosphere by an impact event.[24][25]

In 2010, Robert Dull, John Southon, and colleagues presented evidence suggesting a link between the Tierra Blanca Joven (TBJ) eruption of the Ilopango caldera in central El Salvador and the 536 event.[26] Although earlier published radiocarbon evidence suggested a two-sigma age range of 408–536,[27] which is consistent with the global climate downturn, the connection between 536 and Ilopango was not explicitly made until research on Central American Pacific margin marine sediment cores by Steffen Kutterolf and colleagues showed that the phreatoplinian TBJ eruption was much larger than previously thought.[28] The radioactive carbon-14 in successive growth increments of a single tree that had been killed by a TBJ pyroclastic flow was measured in detail using accelerator mass spectrometry; the results supported the date of 535 as the year in which the tree died. A conservative bulk tephra volume for the TBJ event of ~84 km3 was calculated, indicating a large Volcanic Explosivity Index 6+ event and a magnitude of 6.9. The results suggested that the Ilopango TBJ eruption size, latitude, and age are consistent with the ice core sulphate records of Larsen et al. 2008. Later research suggested date 539/540 C.E.[29] However, a more recent study, examining other evidence, now dates the eruption to the year 431 C.E.[30]

A 2015 study further supported the theory of a major eruption in "535 or early 536", with North American volcanoes considered a likely candidate. It also identified signals of a second eruption in 539–540, likely to have been in the tropics, which would have sustained the cooling effects of the first eruption through to around 550.[31]

In 2018, Harvard University researchers suggested the cause was a volcanic eruption in Iceland that erupted in early 536. However, the author of the previous study said to Science magazine that the evidence is insufficient to discard the North America hypothesis.[32]

4. Historic Consequences

The 536 event and ensuing famine have been suggested as an explanation for the deposition of hoards of gold by Scandinavian elites at the end of the Migration Period. The gold was possibly a sacrifice to appease the gods and get the sunlight back.[33][34] Mythological events such as the Fimbulwinter and Ragnarök are theorized to be based on the cultural memory of the event.[35]

The decline of Teotihuacán, a large city in Mesoamerica, is also associated with the droughts related to the climate changes, with signs of civil unrest and famines.

A book written by David Keys speculates that the climate changes contributed to various developments, such as the emergence of the Plague of Justinian (541–549 AD), the decline of the Avars, the migration of Mongolian tribes towards the West, the end of the Sassanid Empire, the collapse of the Gupta Empire, the rise of Islam, the expansion of Turkic tribes, and the fall of Teotihuacán.[12] In 2000, a 3BM Television production (for WNET and Channel Four) capitalized upon Keys' book. The documentary, under the name Catastrophe! How the World Changed, was broadcast in the US as part of PBS's Secrets of the Dead series.[36] However, Keys and Wohletz's ideas lack mainstream acceptance. Reviewing Keys' book, British archaeologist Ken Dark commented that "much of the apparent evidence presented in the book is highly debatable, based on poor sources or simply incorrect. [...] Nonetheless, both the global scope and the emphasis on the 6th century AD as a time of wide-ranging change are notable, and the book contains some obscure information which will be new to many. However, it fails to demonstrate its central thesis and does not offer a convincing explanation for the many changes discussed".[37]

The historian Andrew Breeze in a recent book (2020) argues that some King Arthur events including the Battle of Camlann are historical, happening in 537 as consequence of the famine associated with the climate change of the previous year.[38]


  1. Procopius; Dewing, Henry Bronson, trans. (1916). Procopius. vol. 2: History of the [Vandalic] Wars, Books III and IV. London, England: William Heinemann. p. 329. ISBN 978-0-674-99054-8. 
  2. Ochoa, George; Jennifer Hoffman; Tina Tin (2005). Climate: the force that shapes our world and the future of life on earth. Emmaus, PA: Rodale. ISBN 978-1-59486-288-5. , gives this quote as "The Sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the Sun in eclipse".
  3. Cassiodorus; Hodgkin, Thomas, trans. (1886). The Letters of Cassiodorus. London, England: Henry Frowde. pp. 518–520.  See: "25. Senator, Praetorian Praefect, to his deputy Ambrosius, an Illustris."
  4. Michel le Syrien; Chabot, J.-B., trans. (1901) (in fr). Chronique de Michel le Syrien, Patriarche Jacobite d'Antoche. 2nd vol.. Paris, France: Leroux. pp. 220–221.  From pp. 220–221: "Or, un peu auparavant, en l'an 848, il y eut un signe dans le soleil. … , et le vin avait le goût de celui qui provient de raisins acides." (However, a little earlier, in the year 848 [according to the Greek calendar; 536/537 AD according to the Christian calendar], there was a sign in the sun. One had never seen it [before] and nowhere is it written that such [an event] had happened [previously] in the world. If it were not [true] that we found it recorded in most proven and credible writings, and confirmed by men worthy of belief, we would not have written it [here]; for it's difficult to conceive. So it is said that the sun was darkened, and that its eclipse lasted a year and a half, that is, eighteen months. Every day it shone for about four hours and yet this light was only a feeble shadow. Everyone declared that it would not return to the state of its original light. Fruits didn't ripen, and wine had the taste of what comes from sour grapes.)
  5. Gaelic Irish Annals translations
  6. Documents of Ireland
  7. The Annals of the Four Masters
  8. The battle is dated 539 in some editions.
  9. "Camlan | Robbins Library Digital Projects" (in en). 
  10. Ochoa, George; Jennifer Hoffman; Tina Tin (2005). Climate: the force that shapes our world and the future of life on earth. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale. p. 71. ISBN 978-1-59486-288-5. 
  11. Rosen, William (2007). Justinian's flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 978-0-224-07369-1. 
  12. Keys, David Patrick (2000). Catastrophe: an investigation into the origins of the modern world. New York: Ballantine Pub. ISBN 978-0-345-40876-1. 
  13. Stothers, R.B.; Rampino, M.R. (1983). "Volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean before AD 630 from written and archaeological sources". Journal of Geophysical Research 88 (B8): 6357–6471. doi:10.1029/JB088iB08p06357. Bibcode: 1983JGR....88.6357S.
  14. Stothers, R.B. (16 January 1984). "Mystery cloud of AD 536". Nature 307 (5949): 344–345. doi:10.1038/307344a0. Bibcode: 1984Natur.307..344S.
  15. Rampino, M.R.; Self, S.; Stothers, R.B. (1988). "Volcanic winters". Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 16: 73–99. doi:10.1146/annurev.ea.16.050188.000445. Bibcode: 1988AREPS..16...73R.
  16. Arjava, Antti (2005). "The mystery cloud of 536 CE in the Mediterranean sources". Dumbarton Oaks Papers 59: 73–94. doi:10.2307/4128751.
  17. Baillie, M.G.L. (1994). "Dendrochronology Raises Questions About the Nature of the AD 536 Dust-Veil Event." The Holocene fig. 3 p. 215.
  18. Larsen, L. B.; Vinther, B. M.; Briffa, K. R.; Melvin, T. M.; Clausen, H. B.; Jones, P. D.; Siggaard-Andersen, M.-L.; Hammer, C. U. et al. (2008). "New ice core evidence for a volcanic cause of the A.D. 536 dust veil". Geophys. Res. Lett. 35 (4): L04708. doi:10.1029/2007GL032450. Bibcode: 2008GeoRL..3504708L. 
  19. Wohletz, Ken, Were the Dark Ages Triggered by Volcano-Related Climate Changes in the 6th Century?
  20. MacIntyre, Ferren (2002). "Simultaneous Settlement of Indo-Pacific Extrema?". Rapa Nui Journal 16 (2): 96–104. 
  21. Baillie, M. G. L. (1999). Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic Encounters with Comets. London: B.T. Batsford. ISBN 978-0-7134-8352-9. 
  22. Rigby, Emma; Symonds, Melissa; Ward-Thompson, Derek (February 2004). "A comet impact in AD536?". Astronomy and Geophysics 45 (1): 1.23–1.26. doi:10.1046/j.1468-4004.2003.45123.x. Bibcode: 2004A&G....45a..23R.
  23. Stothers R.B. (26 January 1984). "Mystery cloud of AD 536". Nature 307 (5949): 344–345. doi:10.1038/307344a0. Bibcode: 1984Natur.307..344S.
  24. Abbott, D. H.; Biscaye, P.; Cole-Dai, J.; Breger, D. (December 2008). "Magnetite and Silicate Spherules from the GISP2 Core at the 536 A.D. Horizon". American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2008. 41. pp. 41B–1454. Abstract #PP41B-1454. Bibcode: 2008AGUFMPP41B1454A.
  25. "Comet smashes triggered ancient famine". New Scientist. 7 January 2009. 
  26. Dull, R.; J.R. Southon; S. Kutterolf; A. Freundt; D. Wahl; P. Sheets (13–17 December 2010). "Did the TBJ Ilopango eruption cause the AD 536 event?". AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts 13: V13C–2370. Bibcode: 2010AGUFM.V13C2370D.
  27. Dull, R. A.; Southon, J. R.; Sheets, P. (2001). "Volcanism, ecology and culture: a reassessment of the Volcán Ilopango TBJ eruption in the southern Maya realm". Latin American Antiquity 12 (1): 25–44. doi:10.2307/971755.
  28. Kutterolf, S.; Freundt, A.; Peréz, W. (February 2008). "Pacific offshore record of plinian arc volcanism in Central America: 2. Tephra volumes and erupted masses". Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 9 (2). doi:10.1029/2007GC001791. Bibcode: 2008GGG.....902S02K.
  29. Dull, Robert A.; Southon, John R.; Kutterolf, Steffen; Anchukaitis, Kevin J.; Freundt, Armin; Wahl, David B.; Sheets, Payson; Amaroli, Paul et al. (October 2019). "Radiocarbon and geologic evidence reveal Ilopango volcano as source of the colossal 'mystery' eruption of 539/40 CE". Quaternary Science Reviews 222: 105855. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.07.037. 
  30. Smith, Victoria C.; Costa, Antonio; Aguirre-Díaz, Gerardo; Pedrazzi, Dario; Scifo, Andrea; Plunkett, Gill; Poret, Mattieu; Tournigand, Pierre-Yves et al. (20 October 2020). "The magnitude and impact of the 431 CE Tierra Blanca Joven eruption of Ilopango, El Salvador". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117 (42): 26061–26068. doi:10.1073/pnas.2003008117. PMID 32989145.
  31. Sigl, M.; Winstrup, M.; McConnell, J. R.; Welten, K. C.; Plunkett, G.; Ludlow, F.; Büntgen, U.; Caffee, M. et al. (2015). "Timing and climate forcing of volcanic eruptions for the past 2,500 years". Nature 523 (7562): 543–549. doi:10.1038/nature14565. PMID 26153860. Bibcode: 2015Natur.523..543S. . Archived copy
  32. Gibbons, Ann (15 November 2018). "Why 536 was 'the worst year to be alive'". Science. doi:10.1126/science.aaw0632.
  33. Morten Axboe (2001). "Året 536". Skalk (4): 28–32. 
  34. Morten Axboe (1999). "The year 536 and the Scandinavian gold hoards". Medieval Archaeology 43: 186–188. 
  35. Ström, Folke: Nordisk Hedendom, Studentlitteratur, Lund 2005, ISBN:91-44-00551-2 (first published 1961) among others, refer to the climate change theory.
  36. Gunn, Joel D. (2000). The Years Without Summer: Tracing A.D. 536 and its Aftermath. British Archaeological Reports (BAR) International. Oxford, England: Archaeopress. ISBN 978-1-84171-074-7. 
  37. Dark, Ken (November 1999). "Jumbling old events with modern myths". British Archaeology (49). Retrieved 2020-07-14. 
  38. Breeze, Andrew (2020). British Battles 493-937: Mount Badon to Brunanburh. London: Anthem Press. pp. 13–24. ISBN 9781785272233. 
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