Scientists Know Which Year Was The Worst To Be Alive -- And It's Pretty Dark

Perpetual darkness, famine, plagues and a crumbling economy have led historians to believe it was the worst time to be alive -- and now scientists know why.

The year was 536AD,  and it was the start of 'The Dark Ages'.

Europe, the Middle East and Asia are thought to have lived through 18 months of complete darkness when a fog settled above.

Byzantine historian Procopius wrote at the time:

"For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year"

With the fog came brutally cold temperatures -- and the start of the coldest decade in more than two millenniums.

In the summer of 536, temperatures fell by up to 2.5 degrees celsius, while some parts of China saw snow fall, leading to crops failing and widespread starvation.

"It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," Michael McCormick, Harvard University archaeologist and medieval historian told Science Magazine.

Despite knowing about the (quite literal) dark cloud that hung over the Northern Hemisphere and the abnormally cold temperatures of the time, scientists have not known why -- until now.

McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine led a team to study ice in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps.

The ice in glaciers become time capsules for the air around them, and scientists used ice cores to measure the minerals and elements in the air from the year 536.

The analyses found a volcanic eruption, most probably in Iceland, in early 536 spewed masses of ash into the air, blocking out all sunlight. In 540 and 547 there were again cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, prolonging the darkness.

Sulfur, bismuth and tephra, which is found in volcanic eruptions, were found in the ice cores at points corresponding to these years.

Eyjafjallajökull Eruption in Iceland. Image: Getty

The year 536 was the start of the downfall of the Roman Empire, and the bubonic plague wiping out nearly half the population.

"[These findings] give us a new kind of record for understanding the concatenation of human and natural causes that led to the fall of the Roman Empire—and the earliest stirrings of this new medieval economy." said Kyle Harper, provost and a medieval and Roman historian at The University of Oklahoma, said in Science.

The repeated volcanic eruptions, which fueled crop failings and disease, meant Europe stagnated for centuries, until silver mining began in 640.

Ash from a cloud like this Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in Iceland, blanketed the Northern Hemisphere. Image: Getty

The history of Europe's economy can also be found in the glacier's ice cores -- evidence of silver mining through airbourne lead being found in high doses in the ice. Silver is often mined from lead ore, so the presence of lead in the atmosphere was taken to denote increased silver production.

The ice records again show another collapse of Europe's economy between 1349 to 1353 -- the time of the Black Death -- when lead is no longer detectable in the ice.

"We've entered a new era with this ability to integrate ultra–high-resolution environmental records with similarly high resolution historical records," Christopher Loveluck of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom said.

"It's a real game changer."