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the past, the city chroniclers, who were responsible for keeping historical diaries, wrote endless opinions about cosmic catastrophes caused by abusive elites. The chronicler Michael the Syrian, the author of the greatest medieval chronicle, studied by NASA for his detailed description of climate change, would divide each page of his chronicle into two columns. 

On the right-hand side, he would list political matters and the behavior of the elites, while the left-hand side served as a list of natural disasters triggered. Since it was often difficult to see which political scandal triggered which environmental disaster, he wrote exhaustive explanations of the connections.

Another Byzantine historian who left detailed records of his period is Procopius of Caesarea, a Greek scholar who accompanied the Roman general Belisarius in the wars of Emperor Justinian during the Late Antique Mini Ice Age, which lasted from 536 AD to 660 and brought plague epidemics in Eastern Europe, the transformation of the Eastern Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire, the spread of the Slavs throughout Europe, and widespread social unrest in Eurasia. It looked like an apocalypse.

Summer temperatures didn’t rise above 2 °C, the sun disappeared for 18 months, birds died out, and people blamed it all on Justinian. But contrary to popular belief, the coldest period in 2000 years was actually caused by three major volcanic eruptions in 535/536, 539/540, and 547, as well as the impact of Halley’s Comet.

18-month-long solar eclipse

First came the dust veil that covered most of the northern hemisphere in 536/537 and was seen in China, which reported summer snow and frost that year. The temperature dropped by 3 degrees everywhere. Michael the Syrian wrote in his chronicle: “The sun became dark and its darkness lasted 18 months. Every day it shone for about 4 hours, and yet this light was only a faint shadow. Everyone declared that the sun would never regain its full light. The fruit did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes”. 

And Procopius wrote: “In this year a most terrible portent occurred. For the sun gave off its light without brightness … and it seemed very much like an eclipse, for the rays it gave off were not clear”. 

Analysis of tree rings revealed unusually low growth rates in areas as far apart as Ireland, the Sierra Nevada, and Chile. For a long time, scientists believed that this cooling was caused by a volcanic eruption that released volcanic particles into the atmosphere, bringing the so-called volcanic winter. The latest findings, obtained by the Swiss Federal Research Institute in Birmensdorf from tree ring data and analysis of ice cores from glaciers in Switzerland showed that the 536 AD volcanic eruption most likely occurred on an island or in North America. 

As for the eruption of 539/540, which introduced more dust into the atmosphere and advanced the cooling process, bipolar ice core surveys have narrowed the location to the tropics, but the exact volcano hasn’t yet been confirmed. The third eruption occurred seven years later, in 547, and its location is also unknown. Each of these eruptions was followed by a rise in sea level and a series of severe earthquakes.

The Gauls would say that their only fear is that the sky might fall on their heads

Some scientists claim that an event of this magnitude could not have been caused by a volcanic eruption alone, but rather that the dust haze was due to a comet impact in the ocean that ejected huge amounts of water vapor and debris into the upper atmosphere. An ice core analysis of Greenland ice deposited between 533 and 540 AD revealed high levels of tin, nickel, and iron oxides from an extraterrestrial source in the dust layer, suggesting comet activity. 

And in 530 AD a very bright comet was seen in the sky worldwide and identified as Halley’s Comet, which was first seen by the ancient Greeks in 466 BC and is known to pass by Earth every 76 years. Nevertheless, official science did not accept the evidence because the crater that the comet would leave when it hit was nowhere to be found. 

Meanwhile, researchers of comet theory stress that it is very likely that the comet hit the ocean, and recently scientists have calculated that a comet less than one kilometer in diameter would be enough to trigger a catastrophe.

The consequences of this earth-cosmic inconvenience were famine, plague, and a complete collapse of civilization. It took eight centuries for Europe to fully recover and return to its pre-Little Ice Age state after entering the Renaissance. The first outbreak of the plague in Constantinople lasted less than six months but took the lives of 40% of the population. Over the next 300 years, the plague reappeared and eventually killed 25% of the people in the Mediterranean, an estimated 25-50 million people.

If the Little Ice Age seems frightening, it is because many people survived and we can read in the records how terrible their lives were. Reconstructing a civilization is anything but romantic. But it could be worse. 

Comets, asteroids, and supervolcanoes can be just as powerful as those that caused five mass extinctions in the past when there were no humans to blame. So the next time you get scared because you are a human being, remember that humans don’t cause celestial activities, but that it is the other way round.

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