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kottke.org posts about Ann Gibbons

Ultra-Precise Ice Core Sampling and the Explosive Cause of the Dark Ages

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2018

536 AD was an exceedingly bad year for humanity, perhaps even “the worst year to be alive”.

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night — for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536-539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

For Science magazine, Ann Gibbons writes about a new ice core sampling technique that is providing new insight into the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages in Europe.

Mayewski and his interdisciplinary team decided to look for the same eruptions in an ice core drilled in 2013 in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps. The 72-meter-long core entombs more than 2000 years of fallout from volcanoes, Saharan dust storms, and human activities smack in the center of Europe. The team deciphered this record using a new ultra-high-resolution method, in which a laser carves 120-micron slivers of ice, representing just a few days or weeks of snowfall, along the length of the core. Each of the samples — some 50,000 from each meter of the core — is analyzed for about a dozen elements. The approach enabled the team to pinpoint storms, volcanic eruptions, and lead pollution down to the month or even less, going back 2000 years, says UM volcanologist Andrei Kurbatov.

Wow, this is like time travel! You should read the whole piece…it’s not long or technical. I loved the bit about how lead pollution provides evidence for the rise of the merchant class in medieval Europe. (via @tylercowen)