Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Cooling and societal change during the Late Antique Little Ice Age from 536 to around 660 AD

Abstract

Climatic changes during the first half of the Common Era have been suggested to play a role in societal reorganizations in Europe1,2 and Asia3,4. In particular, the sixth century coincides with rising and falling civilizations1,2,3,4,5,6, pandemics7,8, human migration and political turmoil8,9,10,11,12,13. Our understanding of the magnitude and spatial extent as well as the possible causes and concurrences of climate change during this period is, however, still limited. Here we use tree-ring chronologies from the Russian Altai and European Alps to reconstruct summer temperatures over the past two millennia. We find an unprecedented, long-lasting and spatially synchronized cooling following a cluster of large volcanic eruptions in 536, 540 and 547 AD (ref. 14), which was probably sustained by ocean and sea-ice feedbacks15,16, as well as a solar minimum17. We thus identify the interval from 536 to about 660 AD as the Late Antique Little Ice Age. Spanning most of the Northern Hemisphere, we suggest that this cold phase be considered as an additional environmental factor contributing to the establishment of the Justinian plague7,8, transformation of the eastern Roman Empire and collapse of the Sasanian Empire1,2,5, movements out of the Asian steppe and Arabian Peninsula8,11,12, spread of Slavic-speaking peoples9,10 and political upheavals in China13.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type

from$1.95

to$39.95

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Growth coherency and climate sensitivity.
Figure 2: Eurasian summer temperature variability.
Figure 3: Multi-proxy large-scale evidence of the LALIA.
Figure 4: Cooling and societal change during the LALIA.

References

  1. Gunn, J. D. (ed.) The Years Without Summer: Tracing A.D. 536 and its Aftermath (British Archaeological Reports International, Archaeopress, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  2. McCormick, M. et al. Climate change during and after the Roman empire: Reconstructing the past from scientific and historical evidence. J. Interdis. Hist. 43, 169–220 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Czeglédy, K. From east to west: The age of nomadic migrations in Eurasia. Arch. Eurasiae Medii Aevi 3, 25–126 (1983).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Cook, E. R. in The Ancient Mediterranean Environment between Science and History (ed. Harris, W. V.) 89–102 (Brill, 2013).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  5. Büntgen, U. et al. 2500 years of European climate variability and human susceptibility. Science 331, 578–582 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. deMenocal, P. B. Cultural responses to climate change during the Late Holocene. Science 292, 667–673 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Harbeck, M. et al. Yersinia pestis DNA from skeletal remains from the 6th century AD reveals insights into Justinianic plague. PLoS Pathog. 9, e1003349 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Demandt, A. Die Spätantike. Römische Geschichte von Diocletian bis Justinian 284–565 n. Chr (C.H. Beck, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Barford, P. M. Slavs beyond Justinian’s frontiers. Stud. Slavica Balcanica Petropolitana 4, 21–32 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Heather, P. Empires and Barbarians. Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe (Pan Macmillan, 2009).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Golden, P. in Turko-Mongol Rulers, Cities and City Life (ed. Durand-Guédy, D.) 21–74 (Brill, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Kennedy, H. N. The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State (Routledge, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Fei, J., Zhou, J. & Hou, Y. Circa A.D. 626 volcanic eruption, climatic cooling, and the collapse of the Eastern Turkic Empire. Climatic Change 81, 469–475 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Sigl, M. et al. Timing and climate forcing of volcanic eruptions for the past 2,500 years. Nature 523, 543–549 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Miller, G. H. et al. Abrupt onset of the Litte Ice Age triggered by volcanism and sustained by sea-ice/ocean feedbacks. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L02708 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. McGregor, H. V. et al. Robust global ocean cooling trend for the pre-industrial Common Era. Nature Geosci. 8, 671–677 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Steinhilber, F., Beer, J. & Fröhlich, C. Total solar irradiance during the Holocene. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L19704 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. PAGES 2k Consortium. Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia. Nature Geosci. 6, 339–346 (2013).

  19. Braconnot, P. et al. Evaluation of climate models using palaeoclimatic data. Nature Clim. Change 2, 417–424 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Myglan, V. S., Oidupaa, O. C. & Vaganov, E. A. A 2367-year tree-ring chronology for the Altay-Sayan region (Mongun-Taiga Mountain Massif). Archaeol. Ethnol. Anthropol. Eurasia 40, 76–83 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Agatova, A. R. et al. Glacier dynamics, palaeohydrological changes and seismicity in southeastern Altai (Russia) and their influence on human occupation during the last 3000 years. Quat. Int. 324, 6–19 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kausrud, K. L. et al. Modeling the epidemiological history of plague in Central Asia: Palaeoclimatic forcing on a disease system over the past millennium. BMC Biol. 8, 112 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Schmid, B. V. et al. Climate-driven introduction of the Black Death and successive plague reintroductions into Europe. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 3020–3025 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Büntgen, U. et al. Extra-terrestrial confirmation of tree-ring dating. Nature Clim. Change 4, 404–405 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Esper, J., Büntgen, U., Frank, D. C., Nievergelt, D. & Liebhold, A. 1200 years of regular outbreaks in alpine insects. Proc. R. Soc. B 274, 671–679 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Saeed, S., Van Lipzig, N., Müller, W. A., Saeed, F. & Zanchettin, D. Influence of the circumglobal wave-train on European summer precipitation. Clim. Dynam. 43, 503–515 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Jungclaus, J. H., Lohmann, K. & Zanchettin, D. Enhanced 20th-century heat transfer to the Arctic simulated in the context of climate variations over the last millennium. Clim. Past 10, 2201–2213 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Barriopedro, D., Fischer, E. M., Luterbacher, J., Trigo, R. M. & García-Herrera, R. The hot summer of 2010: redrawing the temperature record map of Europe. Science 332, 220–224 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Esper, J. et al. Orbital forcing of tree-ring data. Nature Clim. Change 2, 862–866 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Pohl, W. Die Awaren: ein Steppenvolk in Mitteleuropa 567–822 n. Chr. (C.H. Beck, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

B. Bramanti, B. M. S. Campbell, S. M. Hsiang and C. Oppenheimer kindly commented on earlier versions of this article. D. Galvan helped with the radiocarbon measurements (within the WSL-internal COSMIC project), L. Hellmann provided technical support for Fig. 4 (through the E. Mayr-Stihl Foundation), and D. Zanchettin contributed insight on positive feedback loops. U.B. was supported by the Czech project ‘Building up a multidisciplinary scientific team focused on drought’ (No. CZ.1.07/2.3.00/20.0248). J.O.K. was supported by the European Research Council (COEVOLVE 313797), and J.J., S.W. and J.L. acknowledge the German Science Foundation project ‘Attribution of forced and internal Chinese climate variability in the common era’. This study was conducted within the interdisciplinary and international framework of the PAGES initiative (Euro-Med 2k and Asia-2k), which in turn received support from the US and Swiss National Science Foundations, US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Tree-ring data from the Altai were collected and measured through support from the Russian Science Foundation (project 14-14-00295). Historical evidence was extracted from work ongoing at SoHP, Harvard University.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

U.B. designed the study, together with M.M., and U.B. performed most of the analyses with support from all authors. V.S.M. and A.V.K. conducted fieldwork in the Russian Altai and developed the corresponding tree-ring chronologies. M.M., N.D.C., J.O.K., M.A.C.d.V. and F.C.L. added historical insight. J.J. and S.W. provided model output, and L.W. measured and analysed 14C. F.C.L. compiled multi-proxy LALIA evidence for the Northern Hemisphere. U.B. wrote the paper together with F.C.L., M.M., N.D.C., P.J.K., J.E., J.L. and W.T. All authors edited the various manuscript versions and contributed to long-lasting discussions.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ulf Büntgen.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 23677 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Büntgen, U., Myglan, V., Ljungqvist, F. et al. Cooling and societal change during the Late Antique Little Ice Age from 536 to around 660 AD. Nature Geosci 9, 231–236 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2652

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2652

This article is cited by

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing