Jan 7, 2022

Worst. Year. Ever.

What was the worst year to be alive on planet Earth?  

We make the case for 536 AD, which set off a cascade of catastrophes that is almost too horrible to imagine. A supervolcano. The disappearance of shadows. A failure of bread. Plague rats. Using evidence painstakingly gathered around the world - from Mongolian tree rings to Greenlandic ice cores to Mayan artifacts - we paint a portrait of what scientists and historians think went wrong, and what we think it felt like to be there in real time. (Spoiler: not so hot.)  We hear a hymn for the dead from the ancient kingdom of Axum, the closest we can get to the sound of grief from a millennium and a half ago.

The horrors of 536 make us wonder about the parallels and perpendiculars with our own time: does it make you feel any better knowing that your suffering is part of a global crisis? Or does it just make things worse?"

Thanks to reporter Ann Gibbons whose Science article "Eruption made 536 ‘the worst year to be alive" got us interested in the first place. 

In case you want to learn more about 536, here are some other sources: 

Timothy P. Newfield, “The Climate Downturn of 536-50” in the Palgrave Handbook on Climate History

Dallas Abbott et al., “What caused terrestrial dust loading and climate downturns between A.D. 533 and 540?”

Joel Gunn and Alesio Ciarini (editors), “The A.D. 536 Crisis: A 21st Century Perspective”

Antti Arjava, “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE in the Mediterranean Sources” 

And for more on the composer Yared, watch Meklit Hadero’s TED talk The Unexpected Beauty of Everyday Sounds”

Credits: This episode was reported by Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller, and produced by Simon Adler.  With sound and music from Simon Adler and Jeremy Bloom.

Special Thanks: Thanks to Joel Gunn, Dallas Abbott, Mathias Nordvig, Emma Rigby, Robert Dull, Daniel Yacob, Kay Shelemey, Jacke Phillips, Meklit Hadero, and Joan Aruz.

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