The Dark Ages might have been ushered in, as a result of two volcanoes that erupted consecutively in the mid-6th century, suggests a new study. The volcanic eruptions darkened the European skies for more than a year, plummeting the region into a cold and dark era.

The research, led by a team of international climate scientists from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel and the University of Oslo, headed by Matthew Toohey, suggests that not one, but two distinct volcanic eruptions (one that occurred in 536 A.D. and the other in 540 A.D.) were responsible for this phenomena.

Toohey explains that either of the two eruptions could have led to the drastic plunge in temperature, but when taken together, they were probably the most powerful volcanic event ever and deeply affected the climatic condition in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 1,200 years.

The sudden drop in temperature during the Dark Ages, was possibly triggered by the shroud of sulfur particles in the sky that dismally blocked out the sun. This in turn had a catastrophic effect on agriculture, spreading famine, plague and war throughout most of Europe.

This new discovery by scientists brings out interesting insights and sheds light on what exactly pushed the Byzantine historian Procopius' world of Classical Antiquity into the Dark Ages.

In 536 A.D., Procopius had written about the sun being blanketed with a thick fog, sending the whole of the Mediterranean into a year of chillness and darkness. This phenomenon marked the beginning of the world's biggest disease pandemics in the history of mankind - the notorious plague of Justinian that claimed the lives of 25 million people in the empire, all within a year.

The plague finally met its end about two centuries thereafter, by which time, more than 50 million citizens had lost their lives to it.

Now the cause of this devastating period may probably be linked to the volcanic eruptions that had occurred thousands of years ago.

The evidence of these eruptions appears from the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland in the form of ice cores, which contained sulfate deposits following an atmospheric dust veil that incredibly dates back to 536 A.D. The ice cores also reveal that the first volcanic explosion happened in the northern hemisphere and the second one in the tropical regions.

Further, another methodology that helped to determine the dates was the dendrochronology technique. Dendrochronology is the tree-ring dating mechanism that revealed that 536 A.D. was the coldest year over the last 2,000 years.

The tree-ring analysis and ice core reconstructions slightly conflicted. So a new climate model was devised by Toohey to test different possibilities via makeshift volcanic scenario, such as how high the plumes reached and how many tons of volcanic ash and other related debris was spewed into the atmosphere.

"In the model, we injected sulfur to different heights, to see which - in terms of long-lasting effect - would be consistent with the historical accounts," said Toohey. "That is how the contemporary observations helped us to determine something the ice cores couldn't tell us."

 The research has been published in the journal Climatic Change.

Photo: Din Muhammad Sumon | Flickr

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