Volcanism and the Justinian Plague

Between 541 and 543 CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian, bubonic plague spread through countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. This was a decade after Justinian’s forces had had begun to restore the Roman Empire’s lost territory in North Africa, Spain, Italy and the present-day Balkans by expeditions out of Byzantium (the Eastern Empire). At its height, the Plague of Justinian, was killing 5000 people each day in Constantinople, eventually to consume 20 to 40% of its population and between 25 to 50 million people across the empire. Like the European Black Death of the middle 14th century. The bacterium Yersinia pestis originated in Central Asia and is carried in the gut of fleas that live on rats. The ‘traditional’ explanation of both plagues was that plague spread westwards along the Silk Road and then with black rats that infested ship-borne grain cargoes. Plausible as that might seem, Yersinia pestis, fleas and rats have always existed and remain present to this day. Trade along the same routes continued unbroken for more than two millennia. Although plagues with the same agents recurred regularly, only the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death resulted in tens of million deaths over short periods. Some other factor seems likely to have boosted fatalities to such levels.

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Monk administering the last rites to victims of the Plague of Justinian

Five years before plague struck the Byzantine historian Procopius recorded a long period of fog and haze that continually reduced sunlight; typical features of volcanic aerosol veils. Following this was the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, as recorded by tree-ring studies. It coincides with documentary evidence of famine in China, Ireland, the Middle East and Scandinavia.. A 72 m long ice core extracted from the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Swiss Alps in 2013 records the last two millennia of local climatic change and global atmospheric dust levels. Sampled by laser slicing, the core has yielded a time series of data at a resolution of months or better. In 536 an Icelandic volcano emitted ash and probably sulfur dioxide over 18 months during which summer temperature fell by about 2°C. A second eruption followed in 540 to 541. ‘Volcanic winter’ conditions lasted from 536 to 545, amplifying the evidence from tree-ring data from the 1990’s.

The Plague of Justinian coincided with the second ‘volcanic winter’ after several years of regional famine. This scenario is paralleled by the better documented Great Famine of 1315-17 that ended the two centuries of economic prosperity during the 11th to 13th centuries. The period was marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death, and even cannibalism and infanticide. In a population weakened through malnutrition to an extent that we can barely imagine in modern Europe, any pandemic disease would have resulted in the most affected dying in millions. Another parallel with the Plague of Justinian is that it followed the ending of four centuries of the Medieval Warm Period, during which vast quantities of land were successfully brought under the plough and the European population had tripled. That ended with a succession of major, sulfur-rich volcanic eruption in Indonesia at the end of the 13th century that heralded the Little Ice Age. Although geologists generally concern themselves with the social and economic consequences of a volcano’s lava and ash in its immediate vicinity– the ‘Pompeii view’ – its potential for global catastrophe is far greater in the case of really large (and often remote) events.

Chemical data from the same ice core reveals the broad economic consequences of the mid-sixth century plague. Lead concentrations in the ice, deposited as airborne pollution from smelting of lead sulfide ore to obtain silver bullion, fell and remained at low levels for a century. The recovery of silver production for coinage is marked by a spike in glacial lead concentration in 640; another parallel with the Black Death, which was followed by a collapse in silver production, albeit only for 4 to 5 years.

Related article: Gibbons, A. 2018. Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’. Science, v. 362,p. 733-734; DOI:10.1126/science.aaw0632

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